american choral classics divine art

American Choral Classics
Alban Voices/Robin White
Barbara Naylor (mezzo-soprano)
Peter Jaekel (piano)
rec. 2023, Hampstead, London
Divine Art DDX21106 [46]

This is an imaginative programme, made up of many of the most attractive shorter American choral masterpieces.  In fact the most extended and complex piece here is Aaron Copland’s motet In the Beginning, which comes in at just over fifteen minutes.  Many others of the works, e.g. the Randall Thompson Alleluia, Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei –  arranged from his famous Adagio for Strings – and Eric Whitacre’s ubiquitous Lux Aurumque,  are well-known to lovers of this repertoire, and to be found on many recordings.

As it turns out, the Copland is the most convincing track on this CD – maybe it simply took up the larger part of the rehearsal time available, because it stands out as a really good effort at this very challenging piece.  The alto soloist, Barbara Naylor, does an excellent job.  It’s a very demanding part, and many of her entries are difficult to pitch, coming in as they do in a totally different key from the preceding choral section.

The Alban Singers sing expressively, though they can’t match the excellence of James Morrow’s Texas University Chamber Singers (Naxos 8.559299), or of my personal favourite for sheer stylistic authenticity, on the Gregg Smith Singers’ disc of 20th century American Choral Treasures.  This dates from 1976, but in its CD transfer (on Albany) still sounds completely convincing. (Incidentally, it’s for sale on Amazon at £60.88. Yes, I know.  Instead I recommend looking for it on various streaming services, e.g. Idagio.)  

Few of the other tracks rise to the same level. Barber’s beautiful setting of James Agee’s ‘Sure on this Shining Night’ receives a very sensitive performance; but the same composer’s Agnus Dei proves a bridge just too far.  The cruel exposure of the individual vocal lines does no favours to the Albans, especially their sopranos, who have a torrid time.  There are many fine recorded versions of this, notably Stephen Layton’s beautiful one with his group Polyphony (who also turn in a very moving performance of the Thompson Alleluia on Hyperion CDA67929).

The less said about Summertime and Shenandoah the better – sounds like most of their best singers had another gig that day.  But Copland’s delicious I bought me a cat is done neatly, and makes an entertaining final track.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

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Randall Thompson (1899-1984)
Samuel Barber (1910-1981)
Agnus Dei
Eric Whitacre (b. 1970)
Lux Aurumque
Aaron Copland (1900-1990)
Simple Gifts
In the Beginning
Samuel Barber
Sure on this Shining Night
Charles Ives (1874-1954)
Psalm 67
George Gershwin (1898-1937)
Summertime (from Porgy and Bess)
Shenandoah (trad., arr. Robin White)
Aaron Copland
I bought me a Cat