“…beautiful close harmony arrangements featuring Rutter and George Gershwin et al. **** stars.”
Nick Bailey, Classic FM Magazine
- Conductor: Jeremy Backhouse
- Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, 8-9 March 2003
- Recorded in 24-bit resolution
- Monitored using PMC Loudspeakers
**** 4 stars
Nothing to do with the rock group, but beautiful close harmony arrangements featuring Rutter and George Gershwin et al.
This selection of close harmony arrangements offers several well-known items by composers as diverse as Kern, Gershwin and Mancini, but also includes some newer works, including a Vasari commission from Bob Chilcott called Dances in the streets and Birthday Madrigals by John Rutter. The recording is very close as one might expect for this repertoire, and though this makes for a vivid and fresh sound, it does highlight some inconsistencies in tuning and blend with some breathy tone apparent, particularly in the tenor and soprano parts. That said, it doesn’t detract at all from the overall spirit of the recording, which is rather jolly – even eliciting an occasional smile on my part. Not quite up to the usual standard from this group (the recent Dupré discs have been superb), but a worthwhile departure nonetheless and I would imagine one or two may end up with this in a Christmas stocking?
This is the 23rd year of existence for the ‘Vasari Singers’, all under the direction of Jeremy Backhouse. In that period they have appeared at the BBC ‘Proms’, in the major English Cathedrals, given acclaimed annual concerts at such prestigious venues as St. John’s, Smith Square and St. Martin-in the-Fields, have recently appeared on BBC TVs ‘Songs of Praise’ and performed the soundtrack for the Discovery Channel documentary ‘Seven Wonders’. They have recorded 14 CDs, the last two being of music by Dupré, including a ‘World Premier Recording’ of ‘La France au Calvaire’, reviewed by me elsewhere on this site. Their first Dupré disc, simply entitled ‘Choral Works” achieved a prestigious award; both the Dupré discs appeared on the Guild label that rather specialises in music by that composer. This disc is in more distinctly popular vein despite starting with Rutter’s ‘Birthday Madrigals’ (trs. 1-5). The first of these settings, to words by Shakespeare, (tr. 1) is more in the jazz idiom than the more traditional Rutter type music of the second (tr. 2), which together with the remaining pieces (trs. 3-5) were first presented in 1995, added to celebrate the 75th birthday of George Shearing, the great jazz pianist. After his reversion to a serious, even sombre mode in the first of these additions, Rutter shows himself to be in more birthday bent in ‘Come live with me’ (tr. 3), with it’s introductory plucked double bass, being immediately lighter and more appropriately in character with the Vasari Singers articulating its syncopations with élan and the sopranos having a very distinct vocal patina. ‘My True Love’ (tr. 4) with its high vocal line, and hummed backing, is again very distinct in character although here I could have done with better diction from the sopranos in which respect the resonant, rather too ‘swimmy’ acoustic is a distinct disadvantage.
After the Rutter pieces, suddenly, even unexpectedly, track 6 whisks us to the world of George Shearing with an arrangement of ‘Lullaby of Birdland’, made famous by Sarah Vaughan, and after which arrangements of one popular song follows another; ‘A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square’ (tr. 7), ‘Moon River’ (tr. 10), Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ from Porgy and Bess being some of the most notably well known. Composers such as Kern, Joplin and Loesser rub shoulders with Kosma’s ‘Autumn Leaves’ (tr. 11). All the pieces are rendered in a suitably light, entertaining, and beautifully relaxing idiom, light years away from the previous ‘Vasari’ discs of Dupré and non the worse for that. There is the odd time when I do feel that these very accomplished musicians, who are perhaps more used to deputizing for Cathedral Choirs than the lighter repertoire, are too heavy for the music, but the feeling soon passes and enjoyment allied to respect for the skill and accomplishment involved resumes. I was mildly irritated too when there is a tendency for the simple tunes to get lost in over-elaborated arrangement. However, that is really being hyper-critical because I thoroughly enjoyed the disc and will be purchasing copies as Christmas presents for a couple of choral enthusiast friends who, I am sure, will be rapturous and be taking new ideas back to their groups.
Robert J Farr
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.
You’ll notice that a number of the arrangements, plus one original item, are by Ward Swingle. We’re told that he came to work with the Vasari Singers before this CD was made, presumably to help them ‘swing’ stylishly in this music, most of which is jazz-inspired. Another obvious, and perhaps superficial, sign of his guidance is the use of appropriately Americanised pronunciation. For example, we have a ‘nidingale’ singing in Berkeley Square, and we’re ‘crassing’ Moon River in style. Put this way, it sounds as if it would be affected, but in fact comes over as perfectly natural. (Isn’t it odd, by the way, that our choirs have to work at authentic American diction, while our pop singers are mostly unable to resist adopting a cod transatlantic accent for their offerings?).
Swingle’s work has not been in vain, for the Singers turn in delightfully stylish interpretations of these numbers, many of which are classics in their own right. It helps that the arrangements, many of which are a capella, are superb, and the choir’s sense of enjoyment comes over strongly. The programme is that much more enjoyable for including a number of items by modern English composers, the first of which are the delightful Birthday Madrigals by John Rutter. This commences with a setting of Shakespeare’s It was a lover and his lass – irresistible, and supported by a jazz trio of piano bass and drums. Later on, we have the exciting Dances in the Streets of Bob Chilcott. Thoughtful programme planning here, for these two pieces, entitled Soho and Paddington follow on with geographical logic from A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square.
The general standard of this group is very high, with diction, ensemble and rhythmic discipline all of splendid quality. Tone and blend are not quite so outstanding, partly because the men’s voices are not as good as those of the women, and partly because there are one or two sopranos whose voices protrude ever so slightly from the texture in long-held notes from time to time. Intonation (i.e. tuning) is mostly superb, but sopranos are sometimes just under the note when singing in the upper-middle of the stave. This is never bad enough to be really distracting, but it’s something their excellent conductor, Jeremy Backhouse, will want to keep working on.
It’s things like this, together with the variable quality of the solos from the choir (some of which are terrific, others undistinguished), which stops the disc being of top-notch quality. However, it is the sort of CD which provides terrific publicity for the choir, and will sell like hot cakes at their concerts. Personally, I’m just looking forward to an opportunity to hear them ‘live’!