It’s hard to provide enough superlatives for San Francisco-based Chanticleer, the men’s vocal ensemble which has been top of the charts for much of its 37 years. While personnel have come and gone, the quality remains extraordinarily high.
Performing to a packed audience on the Early Music Guild Series at Town Hall Saturday night, the twelve singers gave a concert, titled “Mystery”, of sacred songs devoted to the Virgin Mary. These ranged from plainsong from the seventh century—although it may actually be much older than that—to 20th-century Russian music, via many of the great Renaissance and Baroque composers. It’s hard to mention highlights, as every song was more beautiful than the last.
From Spain came music by Alfonso X of Castille and Tomas Luis de Victoria; from Portugal an anonymous and lively dance-style song with tambourine, meant to show music of Portuguese West Africa; from Mexico a European-tinged development of a plainsong melody by Antonio de Salazar; and more from the European greats of the great flowering of choral music from the 15th to 17th centuries: among them Giovanni Gabrielli, Josquin des Prez, Orlando di Lasso, Palestrina, William Byrd. Lastly came three from Russia, by Rachmaninov, Georgy Sviridov, and Nikolai Golovanov. Sviridov, like Byrd, lived in fear, both prohibited from writing the music they felt they must: Byrd a Catholic hounded by Protestants, Sviridov under the heavy hand of Communism. Yet all these composers wrote music of sublime beauty.
Listening to Chanticleer, with three voices in each range—soprano, alto, tenor, bass/baritone—the balance between singers made every line audible whether they were singing in four or up to eight parts. In unison the blend sounded seamless, no voice standing out, as the monks of old must have tried to do.
Their diction was clear. It was always possible to find where they were in a song, as the program gave us both the original language and English, plus phonetic translation of the Russian alphabet as well. At times, one or another would sing solo, as in the beginning phrase of the Salazar, or there would be a small group singing antiphonally with a larger group. No vibrato in the voices and the group’s remarkable pitch sense meant intervals were completely pure, a joy to hear.
The soprano voices were astonishing. We are now used to countertenors, but not many sing this high, and all of these sang with a full-throated ease which sounded close to the feminine soprano sound. Only towards the end of the concert—and the end of a three-week tour—did there begin to sound a little strain at the top end of the range, and a few notes which were not quite on pitch.
For an encore, Chanticleer went for something quite difference, a lively arrangement of the old gospel song, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” sung with the same impeccable attention to detail and style and ending with what seemed an impossibly low note.