Album Review

Posted: Monday 10th November 2003
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Deep Purple – Classical Music Web

John Rutter wrote his well known setting of ‘It was a lover and his lass’ (also featured on this disc in a setting by Ward Swingle) in 1975 since when it has become deservedly well known. Its pairing of Shakespearean text with a catchy, jazz-based tune is proving both popular and effective. In 1995, to celebrate the jazz pianist, George Shearing’s 75th birthday, Rutter wrote four more pieces to create the five movement, ‘Birthday Madrigals’ suite. Movements 3 (setting Marlowe and Raleigh) and 5 (setting Shakespeare and Peele) are in the same jazzy vein, using bass and piano. Unfortunately, the two new movements have the feeling of history repeating itself, and though pleasant and effective, do not add anything to the original movement. Movements 2 and 4 are unaccompanied and rather a surprise, eschewing the jazz-like rhythms for a more contemporary, serious feel firmly in the English part-song tradition. These two movements were rather effective and had fewer of Rutter’s signatures; I would have been more than content with these two on their own.

Conductors find this kind of choral music useful to programme as a lighter item at the end of a concert. This is music which is well written for voices and is enjoyable to sing. But it can be tricky and when singing this repertoire I have occasionally found that the music takes more rehearsal than it really deserves. And I always have a sneaking suspicion that music of this genre is in danger of being more fun to sing than to listen to. If sung at all, it must be sung very well. And here the pieces are sung very well indeed by the Vasari Singers.

One other piece stands out in the programme, Bob Chilcott’s ‘Dances in the street’ setting two of Verlaine’s poems. Like Rutter, he takes popular elements to create distinctive and effective items.

The remainder of the programme is in roughly the same jazzy/Broadway type category. This is a genre which I think of as piano bar jazz, an area where it is tempting for classically based artists to stray into with mixed success. But such artists as Richard Rodney Bennett, Marian Montgomery, Cleo Laine and even Elly Ameling (I have a fond regard for her late, crossover album ‘Sentimental me’) have had great success. It is to Rutter’s credit that he takes elements from this genre to create popular and effective pieces, again making it all seem easy. But in the jazzy movements of ‘Birthday Madrigals’ the combination of classic texts and jazzy rhythms made me wonder whether this wasn’t all slightly second best, making music accessible to choirs when it has been better done by John Dankworth and Cleo Laine in Dankworth’s ‘Word Songs’.

When it comes to the arrangements on this disc, this issue of whether the pieces stand up on their own or whether we must simply accept them as a way of making this type becomes a serious one. It is quite hard for a classically trained choir to stray into this genre. There is the constant tug between flexibility and unanimity. The rhythms don’t get the laid back feel that they deserve when there are four of you on a line endeavouring to sing with unanimity. When listening to most of the arrangements on the disc, my thoughts were mainly that the performances were well done, if a little stiff at times. But I am not sure I wanted to listen to a whole album. There are thirteen arrangements on this album and some of the original items, like Grayston Ives’ ‘Calico Pie’ sound just like the arrangements. These are all, pleasant, sing-along encore items, but have no distinctive voice beyond making that particular song available to the choir and it rather makes for an indigestible disc. Carter’s arrangements in particular have a tendency to sound as if they have strayed off the soundtrack of a Walt Disney cartoon and I really do not want to hear the soprano solo line in ‘Summertime’ sung by the whole soprano section of a choir, no matter how well they sing it.

It must be said, though, that Ward Swingle’s arrangements are in an entirely different class. Swingle’s is a very distinctive voice which comes over, even though the pieces are being sung by a choir rather than a small group of amplified singers. In ‘All the Things you Are’, the opening melody responds well to Swingle’s treatment and the choir sing this beautifully. But when it comes to the scat singing, the texture can get a little heavy. Generally the Vasari Singers respond to the challenge very well, but there are moments in most of the Swingle arrangements where the trickiness of the part writing prevents the choir from providing the effortless smoothness and complete accuracy that the arrangements really require.

This probably all sounds a little unnecessarily harsh. This is a well sung disc and some thought has gone in to the programme. I particularly like the involvement of Ward Swingle, but I did wonder whether the arrangements could not have been varied a little more by something like Manhattan Transfer’s material. Apart from Swingle’s own, not enough of the arrangements are distinctive enough to stand on their own, they feel too much like the producers padding the disc. Couldn’t the Vasari Singers have commissioned someone to write one medley and then have devoted the remaining CD to some more interesting repertoire exploring other composers that like to dip a toe into the tricky world of piano-bar jazz.

Robert Hugill
Classical Music Web