I often find it difficult to find good choral music albums. I spend considerable time trying to discover albums and artists that program new music, that interpret traditional classics in creative and thought-provoking ways. There is no Top 40 radio station for choral albums (Even NPR spends less than 3% of its air time on classical choral music), no Billboard Hot 100 chart. There is no New York Times bestseller list of popular choral works or newly published octavos, no Pulitzer Prize for choral music. The closest the choral world comes to any of that is the Choral category at the Grammy Awards, which can be as much about promotion and politics as it is about artistic accomplishment. How many times can Messiah or Vespers 1610 be nominated while passing up modern composers?
Furthermore, all of us in the choral world “come from” a style and school of music making that is often still quite geographically regional or cultural. I, like most, have my preferences for sound, style, and repertoire that can be hard to break out of.
With that in mind, here are three choral albums that you may not know exist but that each provide high quality choral music in new and three distinct packages.
1. Kings Singers: Circle of Life. If you’ve been in the choral world for more than five minutes you’ve heard of the King’s Singers. However, most people haven’t heard of this album from 20 years ago. Rather than English madrigals, Italian frottola or beautifully rendered folk songs, this album smacks you in the face popular music from several decades, creative vocal-instrumental combinations, the usual impeccable blend and intonation for which the ensemble is renowned, and none of the screaming, overly textured, hyper-aggressive style of contemporary a cappella groups. A fun, balanced album perfect for weekend listening!
2. National Lutheran Choir: The Caged Bird Sings. Despite the fact that there are tens of thousands of sacred choral compositions, the choral profession, academic, professional, et al, tends to recycle the same 100-200 octavos, masses, and major work excerpts (as previously mentioned). How many choral albums, high school programs, college festivals program O Magnum Mysterium? Too many. The answer is too many. It’s not that Morten Lauridsen isn’t a boss (he is), or that the music and text isn’t emotionally powerful (made me cry the first time I heard it). But, what else is out there? David Cherwien and the National Lutheran Choir serve up a creative and novel album of sacred choral music featuring several pieces you’ve never heard paired with a few familiar morsels of soul food. The NLC’s deep, warm, human sound is perfect for the sacred texts yet flexible enough to bring spirit to a diverse body of work.
3. Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir: Nordic Mass. If you’ve heard of the Mogens Dahl Chamber Choir before, raise your hand. Put it down, you’re lying. This Danish choir has put out some wonderful work in the last decade, including this avant garde “mass” setting of a secular Swedish text, set to music by the celebrated composer Sven-David Sandström. Featuring demanding technical singing, it mixes several contemporary chordal sonorities (clusters, bell tones, luscious sevenths) with hisses, slides, and expansive ranges in every part. The ensemble is equal to the task in every way.