Kammerchor giants ROP6249

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Adrian Means/The Neuer Kammerchor Berlin
rec. 2023, Christuskirche Berlin
Rondeau Production ROP6249 [62]

The Neuer Kammerchor Berlin was founded in 2016 by Adrian Means and this is their debut recital disc.  They are a fresh voiced twenty six member choir and their performing is of an exceptionally high level.  Indeed the whole disc is a masterclass in beautiful and carefully prepared ensemble singing. The quality of the music making is matched by a skilled and sympathetic recording made in the generous acoustic of the Christuskirche Berlin which allows the voices collectively and soloistically to blossom and bloom.

The unusual programme is interesting and reflects the choir’s commitment to the promotion of new and unfamiliar composers and their music.  Standing on the Shoulders of Giants is the title given this disc which is explained both by the modern works being inspired by masterpieces of the past and also the performers themselves paying homage to great singers and choirs of earlier times. This allows for some effective and interesting juxtapositions in the programme where the rapturous Kyrie from Rheinberger’s Mass in E flat is followed by Paul Stanhope’s optimistic The Land is Healed or a Tallis Nunc dimittis leads onto Karin Rehnqvist’s atmospheric Wiegenlieder im All – the latter featuring a recording of a chirping Blackcap layered into the singing. The liner note (slightly clumsy in it’s English-only translation) closes with the statement; “Society and people are fragile.  We need gentle music”.  I would fundamentally contest that statement but it does explain my only relatively negative observation regarding the disc.  The repertoire while individually very beautiful does make for a less varied recital than some and one that possibly does not fully reflect the range and skill of the choir.  But make no mistake, the music they do sing is stunningly done.  

The disc opens with two works by Daniel Elder with the second, The Yellow Wood, a commission by the choir, particularly impressive.  The style of these works; tonal, lyrical but richly harmonised, is reminiscent of other post modern choral compositions by the likes of Whiteacre or Gjelo.  These works shows off the great care that has been taken blending and balancing the choral group as well as their absolute security in terms of pitch control (the entire disc is sung unaccompanied) and ensemble. The Yellow Wood rises to an impassioned climax which allows the choir to demonstrate their dynamic and tonal control to great effect. Another great choir – indeed one of my favourites – Charles Bruffy and the Kansas City Chorale (in this instance combined with the Phoenix Bach Choir) – recorded the complete Rheinberger Mass for Chandos and direct comparisons are interesting. The larger sized American group are equally refined and well-trained and sing with extraordinary poise and beauty. But perhaps the super-refined approach just robs the music/text of a degree of humanity which the Neuer Kammerchor Berlin manage to retain. To be honest, listening to either such accomplished group is a joy.

As mentioned, all of the contemporary works follow in the tradition of earlier choral writing; well-crafted, tonally centred and mellifluous with music that sounds rewarding to perform. A case in point is the set of Five Traditional Songs set by John Rutter. In many ways this set displays both the strengths and (relative) weakness of Rutter as a composer. The sheer skill and aptness of the word-setting is never in doubt. Here Rutter takes five well-known British folksongs and arranges them for choir. If the settings lack for anything it is that final dash of arranging genius to lift the settings from a faint sense of the predictable into something that transcends the routine. Folksong setting is always a tricky balance between respecting the essence of the original yet creating a concert-hall sophistication. A composer such as Percy Grainger was a master at this – in comparison these Rutter settings, enjoyable though they are, sound slightly sanitised. Sensibly the Neuer Kammerchor Berlin avoid any temptation to use a faux-folk accent but neither do they sing with the unbuttoned vigour that such songs really need. Again, the sheer excellence of the control and unanimity of the singing is wonderful but in the three quicker tempo songs in the set the earthy energy of the originals is diluted by that sense of total control. Qualities that make the Tallis Nunc dimittis that follows simply ravishing – so another feather in the programme planner’s cap. The recital is completed by Ken Steven’s celebratory Hentaken Jiwa – the Beat of the Soul. This is a suitably exuberant conclusion which sets an Indonesian-Malay traditional dance completed with stamping and clapping. I can imagine this being a popular encore or concert-closer in the choir’s live performances.

So a genuinely impressive disc to showcase the excellence of the Neuer Kammerchor Berlin. Although quite diverse, I found that I enjoyed individual pieces more when listened to in isolation rather than as single-sitting-recital. But this is clearly a stylistic choice by the programme planners and I can imagine other listeners responding to the over-arching concept more than I. The liner booklet – although the main text is in German and English – provides the sung texts in their original language only which limits the comprehension of some items. Certainly these are performers who I would seek out again.

Nick Barnard

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Presto Music

Daniel Elder (b.1986)
The Yellow Wood
Josef Gabriel Rheinberger (1839-1901)
Kyrie (Mass in E flat Op.109 ‘Cantus Missae’
Paul Stanhope (b.1969)
The Land is healed – Ban-garay!
Max Bruch (1838-1920)
Morgengesang Op.71 no.7
Justus Wilhelm Lyra
Der Mai ist gekommen
John Rutter (b.1945)
Five Traditional Songs
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585)
Nunc Dimittis – Tone VIII
Karin Rehnqvist (b.1957)
Wiegenlieder in All
Caroline Shaw (b.1982)
And the swallow (Psalm 84)
Ken Steven (b.1993)
Hentakan Jiwa – The Beat of the Soul