Saturday, February 23, 2008

Take That, London!

Gretchaninov: Passion Week
Kansas City Chorale and Phoenix Bach Choir; Charles Bruffy
Caroline Markham, mezzo-soprano; Paul Davidson, tenor; Bryan Taylor, baritone
Chandos Records, CHSA 5044


I feel like some crow-eating is in order. Well, almost.

I've spent some ink extolling the virtues of London as a vocal music mecca (indeed, as a classical music mecca in general), what with recent discs of Stile Antico, Tenebrae and Polyphony--plus a recent Tallis Scholars release of Robert Byrd on the way.

But the world of music is always full of surprises, and here is an unexpectedly fabulous release from the combined ensembles of the Phoenix Bach Choir and the Kansas City Chorale doing the lush, lugubrious works of the Russian Alexander Gretchaninov (1864-1956). Apparently I'm still spending some time with my head under a rock somewhere, as this album was nominated for four Grammys including Best Classical Album and Best Choral Performance, and it won the Grammy for Best Engineered Classical Album.

Much in the mode of Rachmaninov, Gretchaninov's choral works are simple, direct and hauntingly beautiful. His harmonic palette is 19th Century, and his innovation is in expression rather than mechanism. Gretchaninov's Vespers resemble Rachmaninov's in exactly the same way as Duruflé's Requiem resembles Fauré's: they have structure and fundamental sensibility in common, but with a brief exposure you'll have no trouble determining which is which. My wife finds it all impossibly heavy, but it's achingly powerful to me. I think there's a strange phenomenon at work; if there were such thing as a soul, I would say this music is designed to crush the soul flat before giving it a miraculous healing. That's how this music sounds to me, almost like (to quote Shakespeare In Love) a sickness and its cure, together. I feel compelled to champion Gretchaninov, like a bout of Stockholm Syndrome. But really, if you like Rachmaninov's Vespers, you'll love this music. And this release is the unexpected equal in style and conviction of the fabulous 1999 Holst Singers release of some of the same repertoire on Hyperion.

I just never thought I'd be saying that about a choral group from Kansas City and Phoenix.

I suppose, to be fair, the London musical elite needn't put their flats up for rent and buy plane tickets for Missouri just yet. But it's an excellent reminder that there are sophisticated musical minds and really talented people all over the place. A quick perusal of the KCC's and PBCs websites show a group of mostly young, highly educated professionals (much like the members of London's Stile Antico, come to think of it). Well, it seems that they have several other recordings out as well, which I'm now eager to explore.

Enthusiastically recommended.

No comments: