06 October 2016

Choral Ennui

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Something awful has happened to choral music over the past quarter of a century or so.  It has lost its musical interest and become a vehicle for self-indulgent aural luxury.  A whole generation of 30-something composers have latched on to this desire among choirs to make a nice noise and little else.  Here we have the consolidated outpourings of one of their leading lights, the Norwegian Ola Gjeilo.

If this is beginning to read like the ranting of cynical ex-choral director, then simply play this CD and try to differentiate between the tracks.  What is sacred, what is secular?  What is happy, what is sad? Which piece depicts the praise of God, which is a reflection on individual loneliness?  Even more difficult to decipher, which is sung by Voces8 and which is sung by Tenebrae? It all sounds the same, irrespective of which of these two excellent choirs is doing the singing, who is doing the conducting, and what is added to the sonic mix by way of instrumental backing.  Decca have not helped their case any by superimposing on to All Hallows’ Church in Hampstead a resonance of such echoing proportions that it all coalesces into a kind of warm, conglomerate fug.

Much of Gjeilo’s music sounds like out-takes from soundtracks to recent movies.  Lord of the Rings is the front-runner in the sound-alike stakes, but there’s a bit of Titanic there as well, not least in the folksy guitar-infused The Lake Isle (do we take it there’s an iceberg lurking somewhere in this mist-enshrouded body of shimmering water?).

Don’t get me wrong.  This is lovely singing, and the tracks in their own way are often very beautiful.  In a word, it is nice.  Those who hanker after a bit of something soothing to put on in the background while they light their scented candles and pour out the mulled carrot juice should snap this disc up; it could not be a better atmosphere-maker to an environment of induced calm.  And nobody is going to complain that it is in any way intellectually challenging or musically demanding.

Voces8 and Tenebrae need no introduction.  They are both extremely fine choral groups whose effortless and beautifully modulated tone is the perfect sound for Gjeilo’s slowly flowing, shimmering sonic meanderings.  I wonder, however, how even they can be so dispassionate in articulating the “hosannas” of the 2004 setting of the Sanctus.  When we read in Gjeilo’s notes that the work was conceived on a “cheap Keyboard I borrowed while living in London” we realise the problem; he did not want to disturb the neighbours, so kept the sound as musically wall-paperish as he could.  And continuing the theme of musical wall-paper, in his own piano introduction to “The Crossing”, Gjeilo proves that he can dribble over the keyboard as dreamily as any Richard Clayderman clone.

And that is the real issue with this disc.  It exudes a rich, sumptuous, all-embracing sound, but that sound has nothing to do with the texts or the character of the texts.  Words, it seems, are coincidental to the delivery of a warming sonic experience.

Accepting this, one can enjoy this appallingly-short-measure CD simply at face value and move on to something more musically stimulating once the brain has had its 47 minutes of stasis.

[This review has been published on the MusicWeb International website.  IF you want to hear it - you can buy the disc from that site]

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