> Choral and Song
Conspirare: "Sing Freedom"
Texts and translation. Harmonia Mundi HMU807525
If you like your African–American spirituals served up in refined, restrained chorale mode, then this recording is for you. If, like me, you find these songs more powerful when marked by raw personal emotion rather than a carefully cultivated group experience, you'll want to look elsewhere. Director Craig Hella Johnson consciously chose to present this music so that it might take its place among the works of Wolf, Schumann and Schubert, three composers he cites in the accompanying notes. Unfortunately, the performance never rises beyond admirable to scale the heights of inspiration. The choral sound is remarkably lush and gorgeously tempered, but something is lost when songs like "Ain'-a That Good News" and "Plenty Good Room" are handled with kid gloves. When any choir performs spirituals successfully, the reason the audiences go wild, either with applause or tears, is that lack of control, that sense of life on the edge — of a soul crying out in joy or despair — that lurks unself-consciously beneath the musicianship. Here, it's all musicianship, and the effect is too precious and controlled. The only exception is Robert Kyr's "Freedom Song." It's pitched as a pandemonious free-for-all, with the chorus wailing in counterpoint to a steady drumbeat, which proves they can cut loose when it's expressly written into the music. Otherwise, the occasional outbursts, such as the forte breakout from the pianissimo chant of William Dawson's arrangement "Soon Ah Will Be Done," are entirely predictable. Most of the selections are of the slow and doleful variety, which speaks again to the delicacy of delivery the group appears most comfortable with, although "Hold On" provides a rousing diversion. Among the soloists, the men generally achieve a better balance between plaintive authenticity and solid vocal training than do the women, who tend to be too operatic, both in tone and diction.
JOANNE SYDNEY LESSNER