International Record Review

A chamber choir is like a family. The smallness of the group, combined with the intensity of music-making, facilitates bonding. One feels how true that is, paging through the booklet that accompanies this release. The middle pages are a photographic collage of the Con Anima Chamber Choir, apparently in rehearsal for, or actually recording, this CD. Judging from the bulky outerwear, knitted caps, mittens and scarves, it must have been chilly in St Mary’s Chapel, Blairs, Aberdeen. The cosy, informal air created by these photos is reinforced by a listing of sponsored tracks. Now, I’ve certainly heard of whole recordings being sponsored but not individual tracks. We read, for example, that one track is sponsored by chorister ‘Angelika Ebenhöh-Padel, as a memory of her time in Aberdeen’, and that another is ‘dedicated to Alistair and Betty Philip, with love from [soprano] Lorna, Gill and David’.

The Con Anima Chamber Choir was founded in 2001 and apparently plays a prominent role in Aberdeen’s arts scene. The ensemble’s website lists concerts both upcoming and in the recent past: Handel’s Messiah, Rachmaninov’s Vespers, Christmas programmes and the like. ‘Come- And Sing’ programmes invite the public to join it in special performances of its current repertory. ‘Madrigali: Fire & Roses’ is its third CD and the first to be devoted, at least in part, to a composer other than principal conductor Paul Mealor. In other words, with this release Con Anima seems to be aiming for recognition further afield.

Including music by American composer Morten Lauridsen is a good strategy for doing so. Over the past two decades, Lauridsen’s works have been embraced by many choral societies, both large and small, and both accomplished and less so. Speaking from experience, they are rewarding but not easy to perform, and they appeal to knowledgeable audiences. Madrigali, composed in 1987, is subtitled ‘Six “Fire Songs” on Italian Renaissance Poems’ because the texts use fire as a metaphor for love. Lauridsen unifies the score with what he calls a ‘fire chord’ – a B flat minor triad with an added C – whose dissonance aptly mirrors love’s pain. (I am writing this on the eve of Valentine’s Day!) Lauridsen’s style is quickly recognizable: richly consonant chords occasionally spiced with mild dissonances, musical rhythms governed by the rhythm of the texts, and a preference for vocal parts that move in parallel.

Madrigali is a rewarding work, and Chanson eloignée (a setting of Rilke) is similarly gratifying. Several ensembles have recorded the Madrigals. I had on hand Polyphony’s version and the differences between it and Con Anima’s are striking. First, one notices that Con Anima has been recorded in a much more reverberant acoustic and closer to the microphones. The effect is dramatic but perhaps a little oppressive. Once past that, one also notices that Polyphony’s sound is more blended and that the music-making is more spontaneous. Polyphony’s performance develops phrase by phrase; Con Anima’s more cautious singing tends to proceed chord by chord. I won’t belabour the point, other than to conclude that Polyphony is a more polished ensemble than Con Anima.

Mealor’s Now sleeps the crimson petal, four madrigals whose texts allude to roses, is also a welcome addition to the choral repertory. Mealor’s choral writing, like Lauridsen’s, is fundamentally conservative. While it is less distinctive, it is more varied in the way the choir is used. For example, in ‘Upon a bank with roses’ Mealor’s use of micro-polyphony to evoke the stream’s gentle waters is not far from Ligeti. Con Anima, with the composer at the helm, seems more confident here and this is a very good performance by any standard. (To be fair, I must add that Lauridsen was present at the recording sessions as well.)

The balance of the programme is made up of shorter works, several of them sharing texts with the larger selections. Here, the results are not overwhelming. In the Italian madrigals, the ensemble is pared down to three, four or five voices. The phrase ‘safety in numbers’ comes to mind. These madrigals are a test of any ensemble’s intonation, blend, responsiveness and stylistic acuity. Con Anima’s singers make a heroic attempt here, but it would be useless to pretend that these performances are competitive on an international level. They sound like the work of three, four or five talented singers. If only the individual voices would disappear to
reveal that elusive single, multifaceted voice that this music needs. The shorter English works come off better, but my reservations remain.

—Raymond S. Tuttle