Cantus takes on the holidays and wins, while VocalEssence has great fun with Minnesota's musical legacy.
Cantus, "Christmas With Cantus" (Cantus)
The nine-member male vocal ensemble Cantus has a unique process for creating musical performances. A single member takes responsibility for each selection, rehearsing it and giving it his individual spin. One advantage of this is that each number has a unique sound and feel.
For the 15th-century English carol "Nowell! Nowell! This Is the Salutacion," the ensemble creates a large, robust sound, and the recording has a reverberant cathedral acoustic. Also from the 15th century, "Coventry Carol" is sung with a quiet reverence and a feel of real intimacy.
They cope well with the dense contemporary harmonies of John Tavener's "Awed by the Beauty," while giving the "Ave Maria" of Franz Biebl a liturgical feel, and capturing the haunting spirituality in the Huron carol "'Twas in the Moon of Wintertime." At the same time as they express the divine mysteries in Brian A. Schmidt's "O Magnum Mysterium," they find joy in the 16th-century Slovenian carol "Ta Stara Boicna Pejsen."
They demonstrate their musical and linguistic proficiency by singing selections in Latin, German, Russian and Norwegian ("Folkefrelsar, Til Oss Kom" is especially effective), as well as a traditional Muskogee Indian song, "Heleluyan."
They also have fun with more familiar music of the season. The Burgundian air "Pat-a-Drummer" comes complete with an amazing percussion accompaniment, and "Carol of the Bells" is sung with an understated bell backup. "Do You Hear What I Hear?" is sung with a welcome straightforward simplicity.
With a few of the songs, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow," in particular, they get carried away, over-arranging and over- embellishing them. But these are rare blemishes on a CD that seems destined to become a perennial holiday favorite.
VocalEssence, "From the Land of Sky Blue Waters" (Clarion)
In conjunction with its tour this fall of greater Minnesota, the VocalEssence Ensemble Singers issues a new CD of music that explores the state's unique musical legacy. The 30-voice chorus has a sound perfectly appropriate for this music, as warm and open-hearted as the heartland.
They perform classical selections by local composers who have been VocalEssence's bread and butter for decades. They capture the astringent humor of elder statesman Dominick Argento's "There Was a Naughty Boy," as well as the soaring melodies of Stephen Paulus' "The Day Is Done," and the warm vocal textures of Libby Larsen's "Beautiful Star."
They honor American Indian traditions with "Zuni Sunrise Song" by Brent Michael Davids and the folk traditions of the immigrant communities that settled here. Conductor Philip Brunelle never condescends to any of the diverse repertoire.
There are times, though, when the polished sound gives the music an overly homogenous feel. "In Heaven There Is No Beer," for instance, sounds like a heavenly choir rather than a rousing beer-hall crowd. And several of the gospel spirituals, like Undine Smith Moore's arrangement of "We Shall Walk Through the Valley" and Moses Hogan's of "My Soul's Been Anchored in the Lord," sound studied, lacking in passion.
Another deficit is a lack of liner notes. There is no explanation of much of the music's Minnesota connection. "Bei mir bist du Schoen" is featured to honor Minnesota natives, the Andrews Sisters. But what's the local association of "Sentimental Journey" or "The Battle Hymn of the Republic"?
The highlight of the album is an extended medley, "The North Star Hit Parade," performed with tongue-in-cheek humor. It includes advertising jingles, like "The Hamm's Beer Song" and "Jolly Green Giant." The theme from "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" rubs elbows with Ann Reed's "The Fair" and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." Some might find the pop selections, like Prince's "Purple Rain," a bit unidiomatic, but they are performed with such energy and good humor that all can be forgiven.