This is a hybrid Super Audio CD playable on both regular and Super Audio CD players.
Craig Hella Johnson and his Conspirare choral ensemble are known for their unique and thoughtfully programmed concerts, and to that we should add, generously filled recordings. Here is 72 minutes of soul-stirring music, drawing from the vast repertoire of both classic and modern arrangements of African American spirituals, including several by Conspirare director Johnson and three premieres--by David Lang, Tarik O'Regan, and Robert Kyr--that are not spirituals, but are influenced and inspired by the genre.
The program's variety of arrangers is enlightening for it reminds us how effective and affectingly written are the works byRead more the more illustrious and revered creators of concert spirituals--William L. Dawson and Moses Hogan, to name two who appear here--and how difficult it is for others to measure up to their standard while remaining true to this unique genre's spirit and tradition.
Craig Hella Johnson is a gifted and very creative craftsman, whose poignant, powerful Motherless Child rivals another modern arrangement by Carl Davis (not on this CD); but his other efforts here--Soon Ah Will Be Done, Hard Trials, and Been in de Storm--are over-long and rigorously overworked. Soon Ah Will Be Done takes forever to get going--and you can't figure out what the chorus is singing during the long string of opening chords, let alone what this intro has to do with the rest of the piece; Hard Trials is more in the traditional vein and features some lovely, moody harmonies, but its piano accompaniment takes it out of the realm of the true spiritual, and the soloist, beautiful as her voice is, would leave anyone without the text in front of them wondering what exactly she's singing about; and Been in de Storm features two excellent soloists but just overextends its basically solid musical ideas.
The first-rate singing by this world-class choir only emphasizes the elegant simplicity of Dawson's classic arrangement of Soon Ah Will Be Done, or the inherent stylistic integrity of Moses Hogan's rocking Hold On, syncopated sensuousness of Walk Together, Children, and infectious rhythmic energy in I got a Home in-a Dat Rock, which really is a close musical relative of Ain'-a That Good News!, which is also represented here in Dawson's beloved arrangement (although rendered with his later, affected revisions).
Robert Kyr's Freedom Song, with its relentless and (as realized on the recording) in-your-face drumming, probably makes an electrifying impact in a concert performance, but on a recording its repetitiveness becomes more than a little overbearing--I just wanted it to stop more than a minute before it did. The choice of Michael Tippett's setting of Steal Away is a bit curious--there are many much better stand-alone modern concert versions, including the one by Dale Adelmann from 1995 (Paraclete Press); and David Lang's Oh Graveyard, with its Arvo Pärt-like phrase-bursts that eventually meld into what sounds like a throw-back to the good ol' days of aleatoric experimentation seems very far removed from what could be called a spiritual.
Tarik O'Regan's closing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot reminds me of Jan Sandström's setting of Lo, how a rose e'er blooming, with its augmented melodic line sung against a slow flowing river of harmony. It's a highlight of the disc that again confirms this choir's virtuosity as well as its commitment to venturing beyond the expected or predictable.
But of course that programming choice brings with it certain risks, some of which result in hits, and others misses. We have both here--happily mostly hits, and all performed to the highest vocal ensemble standard and recorded in excellent sound. I also commend the producers of this recording for listing publishers for every one of the arrangements--a much appreciated service to those who will carry on this tradition through future performances and recordings. Recommended.