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New Releases Make for a Triple A Cappella Fest

March 27, 2015

Voces8Over the past few months, a number of excellent a cappella ensembles have released enjoyable recordings. The most recently released, Lux (Decca), is from young, UK vocal ensemble Voces8. It consists entirely of works that reference light (lux). The liner notes point specifically to “the solace [lux] provides” and “the desire for comfort being expressed through music.”

The music dates from the Renaissance (e.g. Thomas Tallis’ “O Nata Lux” and Gregorio Allegri’s heavenly “Miserere”) to the present day (e.g. Eriks Esenvalds’ gorgeous “Stars” and, for a change of pace, Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest”). The album also includes works by two frequently programmed contemporary composers, John Tavener and Morten Lauridsen, and a novel arrangement of “Nimrod” from Sir Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

The tracks are mostly unaccompanied: Two include Christian Forshaw’s saxophone (in a manner reminiscent of the contributions of Jan Garbarek’s saxophone to his choral collaborations for ECM New Series) and Matthew Sharp on cello. The selections are universally slow and ethereal. That, combined with an impeccably smooth and well-tuned vocal blend that emphasizes high voices over low (two sopranos, two countertenors, two tenors, one baritone, and one bass), leads to an ultra-smooth, ultra-lovely program that is more than a bit soporific. Even the booklet’s liner notes are in hard-to-read white type over a gold and yellow background. It’s almost as if the producers don’t expect you to follow along, but rather to either close your eyes and listen in the dark or play Lux in the background.

When you do focus, you’ll discover how fine and straight-toned the high sopranos are and how polished the sound is. But then again, you may just space out.

The four women of the American group Anonymous 4 may have declared that 2015-2016 will be their final season, but there’s no hint of age or wear in their impeccable vocal blend. Even if they now sing in slightly lower keys, you’d never sense it from the chastity and warmth of their ensemble.

Twenty-nine years after the group came on the scene with its first recording for Harmonia Mundi, Anonymous 4 completes its trilogy of songs from America with the release of 1865: Songs of Hope and Home from the American Civil War. With guest contributions by two-time Grammy nominee Bruce Molsky on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and vocals, the album offers 18 songs that culminate with a beautiful a cappella version of “Shall We Gather at the River?”

Many of these songs were sung on the battlefield, others in the parlor. Multiple accounts exist of Union and Confederate soldiers, camped on opposite sides of a river or battlefield, alternating Northern and Southern tunes, and then joining together on “Home Sweet Home.” That song makes its presence known, but not in the over-sentimentalized manner in which operatic soprano Nellie Melba and others sang it onstage at the close of their farewell performances. Instead, it, like everything else on this recording, is sung in the same sweet, simple, and unquestionably plain manner.

How you react to 1865 will depend in large measure on whether you listen closely enough to the words to allow their sentiments to transcend their strophic monotony. Thoughts turn to the great singer, Lotte Lehmann, who customarily omitted verses in songs by Schubert so as not to outstay their melodies’ welcome. It may sound callous to call Anonymous 4’s arrangement of Charles Carroll Sawyer and Henry Tucker’s “Weeping, Sad and Lonely” a bit tedious — especially when it expresses the prayer of a woman that her beloved soldier return intact from the battlefield after nobly striking for God and liberty. But unless you are inclined to enter into the longing and naively patriotic spirit of the song, that’s how you may feel. How you react to 1865 will depend in large measure on whether you listen closely enough to the words to allow their sentiments to transcend their strophic monotony.

The biggest surprise of the recital is hearing George R. Poulson’s music to “Aura Lea,” and realizing that, with different lyrics than the originals by W.W. Fosdick, it was transformed into the 1950s hit, “Love Me Tender.” Jacqueline Horner-Kwiatek and Molsky may not create the same intimacy of Elvis Presley at his best, but their rendition exudes charm and vocal perfection in equal measure.

There is a sensuality and dynamic energy to Norway’s Trio Mediaeval, even in performances of medieval polyphony, that is different from Anonymous 4. Their performances of repetitive verses on their latest recording for ECM New Series, Aquilonis, come across as far more interesting than those of the American quartet.

Aquilonis is another of the trio’s mixed programs that seamlessly segues between a 14th century Vespers responsory from the Office of St. Thorlak — Iceland’s a traditional Norwegian folk hymn — and contemporary, medieval-influenced works by Anders Jormin, Andrew Smith, William Brooks, and members of the ensemble. The haunting harmonies of the 15th-century English carol, “Alleluia: a newë work,” hold special importance for the women because the work’s beauty persuaded Linn Andrea Fuglseth to found the trio.

Depending upon the track, a hardanger fiddle, melody chimes, and portable organ may surface sparingly. But what stands out most is the careful shading of the ensemble’s beautiful vocalism. Recorded in an ideally resonant, yet clear acoustic, Trio Mediaeval’s slight changes in tempo and volume, swells of excitement, and other expressive nuances transform each selection into high art. Enthusiastically recommended.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.