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2009 GRAMMY award winner: Best Small Ensemble Performance
Most listeners will find extraordinary pleasure in the rest of this substantial program. Stephen Paulus creates a rich-colored atmosphere, expressing his text (a 14th-century lauda) with beautiful and often unexpected harmonies and rhythms that reflect both modern and medieval style. British composer Cecilia McDowall's Three Latin Motets owe much to the current trend in choral music toward closely-voiced dissonances alternating with full major and minor harmonies with added sixths, seconds, and ninths. Like the Paulus work and Jean Belmont Ford's Electa, McDowall's motets are very much text focused, both in terms of rhythm and patterns of phrasing and inflection. The second motet, Ave Maria, sounds like it could be a work by Arvo Pärt, with slightly more dissonance.
Ford's Electa was written for Bruffy's Kansas City Chorale, and it receives its premiere recording here. In four sections, it also utilizes a mixed harmonic palette as well as a wide variety of voicings to make for moving and often riveting settings of its carefully chosen texts: De profundis; Asperges me, Domine/Credo; Ave, dulcissima Maria; and Magnificat. Her choice to accompany parts of this work with a bass drum and timpano is inspired and very effective.
For me, the highlights of the disc are Javier Busto's two Marian pieces, Ave, maris stella (receiving its premiere recording) and Ave, Maria. Written (as his works usually are) with such seeming simplicity and yet overwhelming beauty--an unusual, deeply felt, knowing understanding of voices that many choral composers just don't have--these two pieces will certainly have you pressing the repeat button many times. The notes by Kathryn Parke also must be cited for their extraordinarily engaging and interesting discussion of the music and the subject of Marian legend. Don't miss this. -- ClassicsToday.com, David Vernier, October 2008
The booklet biography here points out that the Phoenix Chorale, formerly the Phoenix Bach Choir, is the first North American chorus to record for Chandos, the audiophile home of English cathedral choirs and other representatives of British tradition. That's noteworthy enough in itself, and better still is that the program here is not one that would be likely to come from a British group. Unified by its Marian idea, the program mixed classic British and contemporary American pieces in a novel way, and it provides an excellent window for the world on the vigorous tradition of a cappella choral music that has evolved independently of academic trends and their strictures. All the music here exploits, to a greater or lesser degree, the acoustic effects possible with an a cappella chorus in a large space, and Chandos, turning its engineers loose in an Arizona desert megachurch called the Camelback Bible Church, achieves spectacular results. The standout is perhaps the final four-movement Electa, by Kansas City composer Jean Belmont Ford, with its intense passages of overlap between a solo soprano tone and the choir and its haunting use of solo timpani and bass drum, the only instruments heard anywhere on the disc. Both the Ford work and the Two Marian Pieces by Spanish-born Javier Busto are world premieres, and both are likely to be eagerly adopted by other choirs. The singers -- there appear to be 24 -- shine equally in the subtle dissonances of the first of Busto's pieces and in the tricky artlessness of Benjamin Britten's A Hymn to the Virgin. This is a triumph of engineering, of choral singing, and of conducting on the part of Charles Bruffy, a protégé of fabled American choral conductor Robert Shaw, who, like his mentor, has achieved impressive, sensuously irresistible results in a city without a deeply ingrained tradition of classical singing. Booket notes are in English, French, and German. -- AllMusic.com, James Manheim, October 2008