Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Evan Tucker's Handy-Dandy Guide to Gramophone Magazine's Top 20 Choirs

Who deserved to make it, who didn't.  

But five things to be said right off the bat...

- This list makes the Top 20 Orchestra List look positively serious.  No way that 13 out of the top 20 choirs in the world are British, and especially not these 13.  This is purely sucking up to their professional contacts and subscription base.

- There are easily more good British choirs than anywhere else in the world (great?...I dunno). Some of these choirs are freelance orgs that don't comprise the same musicians from concert to concert, I'd be lying if I say that I knew exactly which were which.

- What matters is how well they make music.  Everything else is a fetish.  No matter how much choral insiders talk about sound, nobody cares.  

- In spite of being a choral director and even if I’m putting on the airs of expertise here, I’m no more than an enthusiastic listener of choral music.  In fact, it’s probably the classical genre about which I know the least and am the least interested in learning I'm not sure anything in my life has ever made me feel more nerdy than doing this list.

- This is really no more than a lame and shameless attempt to get the attention of the good people at NPR where I applied for a job opening in the classical music department.  Chances of them seeing this? Pretty nil, but just in case...

So without further ado...(ahem):

1.  The Monteverdi Choir:  Great strengths and terrible weaknesses.  They should be on the list, but clearly, they’re success is widely variable.  Together - with their conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner, the English Baroque Soloists and their expanded counterpart for later music, the pretentiously named L’Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique - they’ve made some of the finest recordings of early romantic choral music (basically Mozart to Brahms) ever made. But their melodramatic style doesn’t lend itself particularly well to interpretive subtlety.  Their Bach can be rigid (though better these days than in the 80's) and their Handel is often wooden.  The music making can be incredibly dramatic, but also just plain bizarre, with overarticulated singing, weird tempos and a lack of ability to relax in slow sections.  They're never anything less than competent, and often exciting. But their performances are generally stuck in 1985 with now old-fashioned notions about adhering strictly to early music texts without improvisation. Still, there's something important to be said for any chorus which sings with that level of dynamic contrast, technical proficiency and obvious commitment.

2.  Polyphony: This must be some kind of joke.  No group (except maybe the Dale Warland Singers) is more responsible for the current epidemic of second rate new choral music.  Again, when the music sucks, who cares about the sound?  Next.

3.  The Cardinall’s Musick: Not a terrible pic, just weird.  They’re mostly an early early music group.  And they’ve recorded reams of it, much of which is quite beautiful.  But like most early music groups, there’s plenty of boredom that goes with the great stuff.  Should be much further down if at all IMHO.

4.  The Sixteen: That’s more like it!  One of the greatest mainstream choruses in the world and led by Harry Christophers, a great conductor by any standard.  They’ve proven their excellence many times over in nearly a millenium’s worth of music.  I just wish they’d lighten up a bit and put some lighter stuff in their repertoire.

5.  Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge:  I guess I just really dislike Stephen Layton (also the director of Polyphony), but this is another joke.  I’m always skeptical about including collegiate groups among lists of great ensembles.  Membership turns over every couple years, the repertoire is almost always second-rate (in this case, lots of High Anglican dreck), and it’s difficult to imagine those public school kids pushing their conductors in the direction of something that changes the ultra-privileged air these groups invariably give off.  BUT...I have no idea about them before Layton....their previous director, Richard Marlow, had much better taste in music.  And before him came Raymond Leppard, who was perhaps a better musicologist than conductor.  But still...

6.  Wells Cathedral Choir: Never heard them, and I don’t expect much.

7.  Collegium Vocale Gent: Finally, a non-Brit choir (Belgian, to be precise).  Their longtime director, Phillipe Herreweghe, is the period performance conductor for people who hate period performance.  He shies away from ugly sounds and gets a purely blended sound out of his chorus that is gorgeous in of itself.  His approach works very well in some French music, and (sometimes) in Bach.  The rest is less convincing.  After lots of listening, you’d be forced to conclude that there are a couple groups that are even better than them in Bach.  

8.  Accentus: THIS is the chorus that should be #1!  It’s a daring, visionary organization that takes on projects no other ensemble has the nerve to touch.  The conductor, Laurence Equilbey, learned her trade from Eric Ericson, probably the greatest choral conductor of the 20th century.  After returning to France, she created an organization that sings everything from established repertoire to new music to transcriptions of orchestral music (and those transcriptions are really incredible).  It’s the only choir in the world whose CD’s I always look forward to hearing.

9.  RIAS Kammerchor: A ‘very serious’ German radio chorus for ‘very serious’ music lovers.  Seriously though, the virtuosity is undeniably jawdropping.  Only a professional organization with huge public subsidies could do the kind of work they do, and who knows how long they can keep that going.  Groups like them are the antithesis of Polyphony and the Dale Warland Singers: lots of ‘difficult’ music designed partially to intimidate the uninitiated.  And they are also Rene Jacobs's choir of choice, and a musician as imaginative as Jacobs has to know something. Still, if you’re going this route, why not another half-dozen other virtuosic German groups that sing music just as seriously?  

10. Swedish Radio Choir: One of Eric Ericson’s old choirs.  Should be muuuuch much higher.  No matter who’s directing, they seem to find the happy medium between challenge and accessibility that eludes so many other vocal ensembles.  So many of the greatest choral composers of our time got to where they were because of Ericson’s championing: Ligeti, Rautavaara, Penderecki, Tuur, Nystedt....what?  You’ve never heard of them?  Maybe that has something to do with the American choral scene and the fact that it’s LAME AS HELL!

11. The Dunedin Consort: Really Gramophone?  Really?  There can’t be more than half-a-dozen singers in the Dunedin Consort.  If you have the Dunedin Consort, why not the King’s Singers, or the Hilliard Ensemble, or Voces8?  This is like the ten-inch Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.

12.  Choir of King’s College, Cambridge: OK Gramophone.  So if you’re going to put three Oxbridge Choirs on the list, how do you put Trinity at 5 and King’s at 12 (and why not St. John’s?)?  If any collegiate choir deserves to be here, it’s King’s College.  This is the choir that spawned half-a-dozen professional vocal groups (including the King’s Singers), made the great EMI recordings under David Wilcocks, and created the whole ‘school’ of British choral singing. So yeah, I’d probably put it on the list in spite of my ‘collegiate’ misgivings.

13.  Tallis Scholars: A fine group for early music that I’ve heard in some revelatory performances and recordings.  Still, a ‘specialist’ group that like most early music groups doesn’t vary their repertoire is necessarily going to create as much boredom as they do greatness.

14.  Choir of New College, Oxford: Another assembly line British collegiate.  Their longtime director, Edward Higginbottom (great name) has made some very fine recordings with them.  But except for St. John’s I’m not sure I could pick the Oxbridge Choirs out of a lineup.

15.  Les Arts Floirissants: The Monteverdi Choir for early opera.   Actually, it’s more an opera company than anything else.  There are enormous similarities between William Christie and Jeggy, right down to the hair-trigger tempers.  Some amazingly dramatic performances, but they sound mannered and over-controlled outside their specialty.

16.  Westminster Abbey Choir: Why are all these young person choirs on the list when there are so many perfectly good adult choirs too?  It’s a bit as though these experts think good singing ends when you hit your mid-20’s.

17.  Balthasar-Neumann Choir: A fine-sounding German ensemble.  Thomas Hengelbrock is a very fine, tasteful conductor.  But it’s clear Hengelbrock has moved into the orchestral world, I’m not sure even he would understand what it’s doing here.  

18.  Stile Antico: Another fine Rennaissance ensemble that can bore.  You get the feeling I’m eager to wrap this up?

19.  Arnold Schonberg Chor: I would be very hard-pressed to find a better chorus in Austria, which is a bit like trying to find great country music in Seattle.  This being Austria it takes a back seat to whatever orchestra it performs with and I don’t think I’ve ever heard them sing without an orchestra in front.  I have a hard time separating them from their most frequent collaborators: the  Concentus Musicus Wien - which has probably been the most exciting period orchestra in the world for the last fifty years.  

20.  I, Fagiolini: An extremely promising young British group that’s done an enormous amount to put old music in newer settings.  Check out their movie: The Full Monteverdi.  Monteverdi Madrigals staged in modern settings.

...later I’ll hopefully post corresponding youtube clips and which choruses should have made the list.  But right now I need a long break.

The Choirs that deserved to make it:


Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir: The thought that they're not mentioned among the world's greatest choirs is kind of a disgrace. Even if it was founded thirty years ago, it's one of the world's great traditional choirs and was a symbol of freedom in the late-Soviet era when religious music was still taboo. This is the choir that brought to the world most of the choral music of Alfred Schnittke, Arvo Part, Erkki-Sven Tuur, Sofia Gubaidulina, Giya Kancheli and Veljo Tormis (who's my personal choice for greatest living choral composer). You may have never heard of these composers, but one day your grandchildren might.

Leipzig Radio Choir (now known as the MDR Choir): If you love those ultra-serious German radio choirs (and who doesn't?), this is the standard-bearer for them all. Listen to them beat everybody at the 'choral behemoths' like the B-Minor Mass or the Mozart Requiem in those incredible Peter Schreier recordings. Then listen to them under Herbert Kegel take on the most avant-garde possible music like Ligeti and Berio. This seems a chorus comprised solely of great musicians who probably have no sense of humor. Just don't expect them to sing Aerosmith.

Schola Cantorum de Venezuela: The bannerhead choir of El Sistema, the choir of John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov but like the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (their orchestral semi-counterpart), an ensemble that proves just as capable in the traditional repertoire as in things without the Latin twinge.

Los Angeles Master Chorale (under protest): This is the choir that gave us Morton Lauridsen. And yet it's almost unquestionably the greatest chorus in America (that should tell you something). For twenty years they were drilled by Roger Wagner (Robert Shaw on the West Coast). Since Grant Gershon took over ten years ago, the place is breathing a different air. This is a now a chorus that's beginning to champion a better breed of new composer. Reich, Glass, Muhly have all gone to LA to permiere, that should tell you something.

Eric Ericson Chamber Choir: The name means what it says.

(Where's Chanticleer you ask?...)

Smaller Ensembles:

The King's Singers: Seriously, how could they not be there? For over 40 years, verything a great chorus should be shrunk to 1/10th its size. People (myself included) used to resent the King's Singers for selling out and putting Byrd next to the Beatles. But if anybody wants to see the only way forward for classical music, just look to them.

Voces8: The King's Singers SATB heir. Both groups combine the best of choruses with a cappella groups. I'm constantly amazed that more professional singers don't follow their examples.

The Hilliard Ensemble: The most incredible musicianship you'll ever hear from any singers. A group of enormous musical integrity and taste who makes the conscious effort to perform only the best at the highest level, regardless of era or area.

(Where's Anonymous 4?...)

Early Music:

Bach Collegium Japan: For my money, gives the very best Bach performances on period instruments in the world. In this case the name means they don't really perform much else. They don't need to.

Gachinger Kantorei:. Helmuth Rilling has been honing them for 56 years, and the results speak for themselves. Nobody has gotten Bach to sound this lithe and dramatic with modern instrumental accompaniment. Rilling is a sure hand at much else too, from Monteverdi to Brahms to Penderecki. They may not be the most unique choir in the world, but few beat them for traditional excellence.

Amsterdam Baroque Choir: Ton Koopman is probably a better keyboardist than conductor. But if the Monteverdi Choir can make this list, so can the Amsterdam Baroque Choir which gives performances of early music with the kind of unsubtle dramatic force which Gardiner often seems to be going for without hitting you over the head.

Gabrieli Consort: There are few conductors working today more imaginative than Paul McCreesh. His Bach isn't very good, but his Handel and Haydn are revelatory. His earlier music has the willingness to keep a flexible pulse which so many of his early music predecessors lacked. Only Harry Christophers is a better programmer.

(Where's...any American early music ensemble?..)

We're not getting into collegiate, symphony, operatic or festival choruses here...(do I even know anything about Festival Choruses?).

...and now that I think about it I can't think of any Russian ones either. Just goes to show how qualified I am to make a list like this....ah well.

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