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The gem of the CD is Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" in his own choral arrangement. It is easy to hear why it is not often sung; the lines and phrases are of immense length, and no obvious breaths can be taken. The Singers' technique is astounding in this regard; personally, I cannot tell whether the choir is "stagger-breathing" or not. The climax of the work is a perfectly blended fortissimo-a very difficult thing to manage-followed by a perfectly balanced and blended pianissimo. Warland seems to have been very aware of the necessity for a great deal of sound from the basses; they are never overpowering, but always audible.
The weakness of the CD is Gregorio Allegri's "Miserere." This piece relies heavily on the voice of the soprano soloist; in this recording, she is neither free of vibrato nor in perfect tune when she should be. Her voice is lovely, it's true, but it is not appropriate to a solo written for treble. Furthermore, the DWSingers is an American group; while I applaud my countrymen for tackling this most famous of Renaissance motets, I also realize that a difficult decision had to be made. The Singers decided to sing the "Miserere" in an anachronistic American choral style, rather than learn to sing in a more traditional European style (i.e. "straight-tone," with a more boyish soprano and alto sound. If you enjoy this track, I recommend the spectacular recording by the St. Paul's Cathedral Choir, on their "Hear My Prayer" CD. You will immediately see what I'm getting at.
The Mass by Frank Martin is one of the more unusual "non-modernist" works for choir. It is both spectacular and beautiful. The room's acoustics are wonderfully displayed at the climax of the "Kyrie," and they allow the second chorus in the "Sanctus" and "Benedictus" to create a sea of sound to support the first chorus. The "Credo" has its moments, especially the "Et incarnatus" section, but is basically a functional setting of the long prayer. The "Gloria" has no such moments, and is, to me, entirely forgettable. The same goes for the "Agnus Dei," which, however, redeems itself with a great ending after droning on for a few pages.
The Howells Requiem is an unparalleled masterpiece. I know of no other setting of the Requiem which speaks so honestly, so directly, to my heart. While Durufle depicts the fires of hell and the ethereal heavens, and Faure conveys simply the universal nature of death, Howells shows us what it really is to lose a loved one. He has written from the depths of his soul, in an intensely personal and individual style, to the memory of his son. The work is clearly composed for himself and his son, not for a commission or for fame. Where other composers of Requiems have composed works which preach to the congregation, Howells is praying silently to God with his entire being. The sublimity of this work is beyond further description. I could not ask for a better recording; I have heard Robert Shaw's version, and while it is good, it does not approach the passion or the depth of this recording.
If you have ever sung in a choir, listened to choral music, or if you believe in the capacity of the human voice to express a higher truth--get this CD any way you can.
The Dale Warland Singers are one of the world's finest choral ensembles, known for their precise technique, silken tone, and adventurous programming. Many outstanding composers have written pieces for them, capitalizing on the group's talent and unique sound. This disc is one of the Warland group's finest achievements. Not only is the program well-considered and expertly sung, but the pristine, virtually noise-free recording is a delight.
My personal favorite is the Howells "Requiem," a deeply moving piece written in 1936. The composer's sad inspiration was the death of his son, and from that grief emerged this stirring creation. This masterpiece receives a mystical and intense performance here that will haunt you long after it has ended.
The Barber "Agnus Dei" (based on his "Adagio for Strings") is gorgeously done, with the long lines powerfully sustained, and the chorus making the tricky intervals sound easy. If you are familiar with the "Adagio" you owe it to your ears to this arrangement for chorus - quite a celestial experience. And Frank Martin's "Mass" is probably the least well-known piece on the program - a pity, but perhaps a performance as glowing as this one will make a better case for it.
The oldest work on the program is the Allegri "Miserere," in an excellent performance. For me, it does not quite displace my favorite by the Tallis Scholars on Gimell, but it is still outstanding choral singing by any measure.
The sound on the recording is amazing - crystal-clear and natural, with no background noise. After hearing this group's other stunning CD on American Choral Classics ("December Stillness"), I can only conclude that ACC is one of the finest small labels around.
An excellent, striking recording, both artistically and sonically, of one of the finest choral ensembles you will ever hear.
For me, what makes the disk so special is that that you don't get to hear repertoire like the Martin mass and the Howells requiem all that often. And it is performed here in a way that is very moving - they know this music very well - both musically and its emotional center.
I can't get over the sound of this group. So balanced, so able to make the soft sounds full and still disappear to nothing. And when they need power, they can go all the way up without shrieking or howling.
This is a fine group and a gorgeous recording of some wonderful music.