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Appear and Inspire, East Carolina University Chamber Singers, directed by James Franklin; Andrew Scanlon, organ; recorded April 2019 at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Greenville, NC. Producer, Blanton Alspaugh; Recording engineer and mastering, Brandon Johnson, Gothic Records, G-49335. $18.98.
After an absence of a dozen years, the East Carolina University Chamber Singers have released a new recording, and though the choral sound is a bit different from their two earlier releases, the compact disc is still quite satisfying. Under the direction of James Franklin, Director of Choral Activities at ECU, the ensemble of more than 30 voices sings with a seamless blend that demonstrates considerable musical talent and skill.
For those who might have either of the two earlier Chamber Singers releases, directed by Daniel Bara (Greater Love in 2007 and Eternal Light in 2009), perhaps the main noticeable difference between then and now is that the voices now seem a bit younger. However, the blend is wonderful and even amazing at times, with no one or two voices standing out from the others in the section. This is especially true for the women, whose blend in straight tones, without vibrato, often creates a sound of one voice augmented.
The highlights among the 15 tracks are many. A few selections are pieces that we know; some are texts we know but sung in less well-known settings – John Rutter's setting for "Be Thou My Vision," for example, or Edward Bairstow's dark setting for "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence." The pieces range from Felix Mendelssohn to Arvo Pärt and James MacMillan, with works by Edward Elgar and Benjamin Britten also performed. Franklin also has included selections by Francis Poulenc and Maurice Duruflé. Except for two works by Mendelssohn (one in English, one in German, both beautifully sung), the other selections generally are from throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries.
A personal favorite, Franz Biebl's "Ave Maria," receives a splendid SATB reading, led by tenor and bass voices with soprano and alto voices providing nice support. But for many, the recording's highlight might be Britten's classic "Hymn to St. Cecelia," a complex ten-minute a cappella piece using a text by W.H. Auden that can challenge singer and listener alike with its shifting rhythms, harmonies, and often unexpected melody lines and intervals. That a group of college-age singers mastered this piece so well is a testament to Franklin's direction and the singers' talents. The piece features solo passages, too, with special notice due for sopranos Arianna Ford and Kerby Baier and alto Alexandra Fee. Bass Christopher Short and tenor Drew Whitlow also have brief solos.
Another highlight is a selected trio of the Quatre Petite Prières de Saint François d'Assise by Poulenc. The male voices sing alone a cappella in French and handle the harmonic demands quite well. Tenor Henry Branson gives a lovely solo introduction to the third piece, "Ô mes très chers frères." Main complaint? The pieces are way too short. But that shortcoming lies with the composition, not the performers.
Two versions in French of the Lord's Prayer, one by Frank Martin and one by Duruflé, are lovingly presented, and the soprano and alto sections are outstanding on the opening of the Martin selection. The women also sing alone on Duruflé's "Tota Pulchra Es," further showing their seamless blend of voices.
Throughout the recording, entrances and cutoffs are precise, and dynamics offer good vocal variety. The voices not only blend well in parts, but also in unison and octave sections. Earlier ECU ensembles earned awards in international choral competitions, and this recording shows that this group is a worthy successor to those ensembles.
A word about the sound – not counting the CD Lift Mine Eyes, which collected 15 recorded selections directed by Andrew Crane at several venues in 2011-14, the earlier ECU recordings were engineered and produced by Gothic Records, and Franklin has returned to this recording process for Appear and Inspire. The recording was made in 2019 (before virus masking) at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Greenville, with Scanlon at the Fisk organ. The sound is excellent from beginning to end. At times, the pieces sound as if they are being sung in a cavernous cathedral, though without reverberation or lingering echo. The balance between organ and choir is just right. Scanlon, who since has taken a position as associate organist-choirmaster at Church of the Advent in Boston, accompanies the singers on five selections, never overpowering the voices. In short, it is a first-rate recording in all respects.
Steve Row lived in Greenville in 2006-16 and was a reviewer for Classical Voice of North Carolina during 2007-16. He was also a member of the Greenville Choral Society, serving on the board and one term as president. He now lives in Richmond, VA.