By Special Arrangement


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Favourite classics by Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Puccini, Greig & Schubert

Artist: The Rodolfus Choir
Conductor: Ralph Allwood
Conductor: Ben Parry
Label: Herald (Released: December 1997)

You can buy the accompanying sheet music online, here »

Why a CD of instrumental music sung by a choir? Well, why not? The easy traffic between instrumental and vocal music that exists in this recording is not as new as it might seem. In 1725, faced with the task of setting the psalm paraphrase Unser Mund sei voll Lachens (‘Our mouth shall be filled with laughter’) for Christmas Day J. S. Bach reached into his bottom drawer and produced the first movement of an early version of the Orchestral Suite in D major, BWV 1069. Two centuries earlier, even less of a distinction was felt between music played and music sung. Vocal pieces crop up frequently in keyboard collections such as the Fitzwilliam and Mulliner Books; Robert Parsons’ Ave Maria, one of the accepted classics of the Renaissance choral repertoire, most likely started life as a Fancy for viols-there is no source in which the music actually sets a text.

It was only in the late eighteenth century, with the ascendancy of the ‘Work Concept; that the practice of vocal-instrumental cross-fertilisation became ideologically suspect. The Work, conceived by the composer for his (rarely her) particular selection of instruments, deserved faithful realisation by the performer, whose limited interpretational freedom certainly did not extend to rearranging the piece for non-prescribed forces.

Fortunately, the situation has relaxed rather in recent years-evidence of which is amply provided by this recording. A broad range of musical styles is represented, from Bach to Mahler. Many of the pieces are reflective, even introspective in nature: the Prelude in B flat minor from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier lends itself naturally to the text from Psalm 126, ‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy’. The two songs by Franz Schubert included are both of a devotional nature: the Litanei evokes the eternal peace of souls at rest, and the other is, quite simply, a hymn to music.

In the case of the two Schubert songs, and Mahler’s Rückert-Lied ‘Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen’; the original was not entirely instrumental: in these pieces, the skill of the arranger perhaps lies in making the choral writing develop as it were organically from the composer’s solo vocal line. Different challenges arise in the orchestral numbers, in particular the selection of a text. What would the composer have chosen if his piece were a song? In many of the works in this collection, the arranger is helped by regular phrase lengths and, in some cases, by the appearance of a refrain. In Delius’ tone poem, another reason for arrangement suggests itself: the onomatopoeic name of the bird cries out for vocal setting, and it is therefore appropriate that the surrounding music should set Wordsworth’s ‘Ode to the Cuckoo’.

None of these arrangements attempts to recreate the exact nuances of the original conception-but who can say what those nuances were, anyway? The business of composers’ intentions and performers’ responsibilities is full of uncertainty, and, ultimately, we are left with the unanswerable question: why not?

© 2000 Robert Quinney

One of my favourite outfits. Arrangements are all first-rate … everything from a Chopin Etude to the Sugar Plum Fairy … all perfectly sung.
Choir & Organ

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