DEEP RIVER

Review by: David Vernier

Artistic Quality: 7

Sound Quality: 6

The Oxford Pro Musica Singers is a fine choir with a nearly 30-year history, but this recording from the OxRecs label does not show the group at its best. John Rutter’s Feel the Spirit–playful, pop-flavored settings of seven spirituals (if you count “When the saints go marching in” as a spiritual) for mezzo-soprano soloist, choir, and orchestra–gets solid, stylish support from the chorus, but soloist Jacqueline Dankworth’s Broadway-mannered vocalizing is neither endearing nor engaging, just annoying. And her acoustic detachment from the orchestra and chorus–a deliberate engineering gimmick–is irritating and unnecessary, as is the slickly resonant, artificial ambience. If you want to hear Rutter’s work the way it was intended, with the very fine mezzo soloist Melanie Marshall, get the composer’s own version with the Cambridge Singers (Collegium).

The reason to hear this recording is for the clever, thoughtful, and often memorably original work of Bob Chilcott, who is one of today’s most active and in-demand choral composers. His Fragments from his Dish, a set of five songs having to do with “food and drink”, offers swathes of virtuoso writing, lovely harmony, humor, patches of Britten- and Bernstein-like language and rhythm-play, and very interesting lyrics (derived from Ogden Nash, G.K. Chesterton, Samuel Pepys, Robert Herrick, and William Langland). Chilcott’s The Making of the Drum, about the physical and spiritual aspects of the construction of an African drum, is another intriguing work that combines challenging choral material with fascinating texts and various percussion instruments–again, well worth multiple hearings.

The other work, Harvey Brough’s Walled Garden Suite, is one of the more boring, pointless exercises in songwriting you’ll likely hear performed and recorded by a professional ensemble. It’s the sort of thing that guitarists often write (Brough is a guitarist who also plays on the recording), with lots of arpeggiated or oscillating chordal filler and gimmicky “orchestration” (tremolo winds, for example, to create “atmosphere”), with unbelievably repetitive melodies pretending to be unifying thematic devices. Even soloist Dankworth sounds bored–or befuddled. I’d say forget this, except that the Chilcott is excellent.



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Recording Details:

Album Title: DEEP RIVER
Reference Recording: Feel the Spirit: Rutter (Collegium)

JOHN RUTTER - Feel the Spirit (spirituals arr. Rutter)
HARVEY BROUGH - Walled Garden Suite
BOB CHILCOTT - Fragments from his Dish; The making of the Drum


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