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Heaven to Earth - Flummerfelt

Heaven to Earth - Flummerfelt

Avie Records  AV0046

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Vocal


Barber: Agnus Dei, Durufle: Requiem (Requiem aeternam, Kyrie), Ives: Psalm 90, Bernstein: Chichester Psalms (Psalm 23), Stravinsky: Credo, Pater Noster, Vaughan Williams: Five Mystical Songs (Love bade me welcome, The Call), Verdi: Quattro pezzi sacri (Ave Maria), Schoenberg: Friede auf Erden

Westminster Choir
Joseph Flummerfelt

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Review by John Miller - December 29, 2009

This album originated in a commemorative radio broadcast a year after the attack on the Twin Towers. It looks back on the causes for war and unrest in the twentieth century, and also forward to a more peaceful future. An intriguing and inventive compilation of sacred and secular music, it was compiled from 2002-2004.

Rider Choir College in Princeton New Jersey trains teachers and music leaders for all walks of life. Its principal conductor and director at the time, Joseph Flummerfelt, is one of the most experienced choral conductors in the USA (presently choral director of the New York Philharmonic), and the Westminster Choir gained a solid world-class reputation under his leadership. Because of the academic programme, the membership of the choir changed somewhat over the recording period for this disc, but its tonal beauty, accuracy and fine expressive qualities remained unchanged.

Beginning with Barber's choral adaptation of his Adagio from the second movement of his first string quartet, the chorus movingly follow its flowing melodic lines accompanied by pairs of violins and violas with cello and double bass, which add extra resonance to the textures. The dignity and nobility of this work has made it into an expression of national grief and consolation, much as Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations has become for Britain, although neither composer originally had this function in mind. The two extracts from Durufflé's plain-chant influenced Requiem are beautifully done, the choir remarkably emulating the French style and sound, and featuring an atmospheric trumpet descant in the Kyrie, carrying the cantus firmus.

The two Psalm settings by Ives and Bernstein could hardly be more different; Ives in Psalm 90 with excellent soprano and tenor soloists and accompanying bells using some of his most astringent harmonies to evoke the displeasure of a wrathful God, while Bernstein's heavenly solo for boy treble pairs a Hebrew text and a melodic style from Broadway (as requested in his commission from Chichester), the choir supported by a vivid percussion group and a psalmic-sounding harp.

The Westminster choir next demonstrate their chameleon abilities further, giving renditions of the two concise Stravinsky settings of the Mass in church Slavonic which emulate the vibrant Russian Orthodox choral sound remarkably well. Stravinsky here shows his religious roots in characteristically rhythm-dominated znamenny chants.

Two settings by Vaughan-Williams of poems by the metaphysical George Herbert, 'Love bade me welcome' and 'The call' are sung with superbly poised lyrical expression by baritone Charles Robert Stevens, accompanied by organist Nancianne Parrella. The chorus make a wordless vocalise at the end of the first piece, singing as if from a distance the plainchant melody 'O sacrum convivium' with stunning effect.

Verdi never intended his a cappella 'Ave Maria' of 1889, but it finally appeared with other later choral works in the 'Quattro pezzi sacri'. A world away from his operatic style, it demonstrates his mastery in laying out a rich polyphonic tapestry. The Westminster singers imbue it with their rich tone and superb voice-leading of the intertwining choir sections. Ending the album is a rarely-heard and substantial piece by Schoenberg (a contemporary of Ives) for double choir entitled 'Peace on Earth', written just before the First World War. The poetry, by Caspar Ferdinand Meyer, begins with the Christmas narrative from the Gospels and moves through Man's inauspicious history of violence and deception. On a symphonic scale, it traces Schoenberg's own painful journey from Wagnerite to atonal Expressionist.

Avie's recordings were made in the ample resonance of the Princeton University Chapel, and although not ideally sharp in perspective focus, give a fine feeling of sharing the space with the choir, and in multichannel is convincingly immersive. The addition of the various instrumental accompaniments greatly adds to the colours and textures of the music.

An attractive and unusually thought-provoking programme, unerringly directed by Flummerfelt, with heartfelt singing from one of the foremost US choirs. Well worth seeking out.

Copyright © 2009 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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