The Good And The Trite In A Cappella Music

Review by: Jens F. Laurson


Artistic Quality: 5

Sound Quality: 9

The a cappella Calmus Ensemble is terrific and many of their discs are real gems, not least the Reformation-themed “Luther Collage” and “In the Midst of Life/1517”. The group’s latest disc is titled “Landmarks”, with the title purportedly referring to the fact that the 10 chosen composers are from 10 different places in the world. Sounds like an explanation in search of a title. The impression the album creates really isn’t so much about the composers and their geography as it is about where the Calmus Ensemble stands, giving us a sliver of the group’s absolute favorite 20th-century titles to sing.

Now, large swaths of the world of choral music overlap with core classical music. We are all familiar with the great choral works, be they various Requiems (Mozart, Brahms, Verdi), Renaissance motets and Masses, Orff’s Carmina burana, gems by Handel and Bach, oratorios by Haydn. But there is a vast, unique niche to be found in the world of a cappella music, with a language very distinctly its own. It’s been a reservoir of contemporary tonality even at the height of the avant-garde shenanigans in modern instrumental music. It has a healthy disregard for the artificial distinction between popular and classical music and embraces music from all genres.

The results can be glorious (Morten Lauridsen, Eriks Esenvalds, Arvo Pärt, Ola Gjeilo) or kitschy (Eric Whitacre, John Rutter), but either way there’s a bag of compositional tricks and ticks that regularly pop up–and there’s a style that’s typical for what modern a cappella choirs love to sing: The shout-outs (“Sakste sõim”, check), a particular style of syncopations, the clapping (“Sabià, coraçao de uma viola”, check and check), and finger-snapping (“Here it is”, check). The line between catchy and corny is thin, indeed. This disc is the epitome of this phenomenon, which makes for its strengths and–alas–its ultimate failure.

Highlights are the pieces by Veljo Tormis, minimalism successfully crafted on Estonian folk songs; the catchy Two Modern Madrigals of Jaakko Mäntyjärvi; and Paul Moravec’s gorgeous Sacred Love Songs, short and clear, unpretentious, moving, and sugar-free. The Poulenc chansons are impressively handled but remain oddly unmemorable.

What doesn’t work? The laconic songs of Georg Kreisler (a Viennese who made a career of plagiarizing Tom Lehrer) are rushed and wedged into rhythmic perfection, performed in High German (granted, that definitely beats affecting a Viennese accent), and totally drained of their sly humor. The Leonard Cohen adaptations of “Here It Is” and “Everybody Knows” are self-indulgent travesties, concerned only with the cleverness of the arrangement and execution for its own sake, the text and mood either ignored or outright undermined. “Everybody Knows”, especially, becomes a chipper caricature of the original, performed in anodyne perfection, making a raging mess of the dark, cynical original. And the sappiness of the closing Sting arrangements is hard to take. Sadly, these few bad apples will likely spoil the bunch for all but the enthused a cappella practitioners for whom this will be an envy-inducing must-listen.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Landmarks

Choral works by Leonard Cohen, Francis Poulenc, Federico Ruis, Veljo Tormis, Georg Kreisler, Mordechaj Gebirtig, Paul Moravec, Aylton Escobar, Jaako Mäntyjärvi, & Sting

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