Arts: Classical: Voices from another world

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS no raucous crowing from Chanticleer. The occasional billing and cooing, perhaps. Yet the singing of the 12-man San Francisco-based vocal ensemble, which has just embarked on its latest tour of France, Germany, Austria and Israel, is, as the late songsmith Harold Arlen might have put it, quite simply "Out of this world".

Its publicity is gloriously unhyped, its delivery intimate and inspired, and its presentation never unctuous or over-slick. But Chanticleer invites superlatives. During its 21 years of existence, and with as many discs to its credit, it has emerged as one of the world's most subtle, refined, intelligent and invigorating a capella choirs. Its top line - high-riding counter-tenors who effortlessly encompass the upper soprano range - partly accounts for its unique sound. Yet the ensemble's blending never cramps or obscures the distinctive colouring of the individual, underlying solo voices.

The group's repertoire is wide, spanning from European (Morales, Josquin, Brumel, Palestrina) and Mexican renaissance to Stephen Foster, gospel, spirituals and contemporary American, including a clutch of specially commissioned works, three of which proved highlights of Chanticleer's Sunday concert at Birmingham's Symphony Hall - only their third in Britain to date.

If the stylish, dynamic adjustments in the Brazilian Jose Garcia's "Crux Fidelis" or the ingenuous simplicity of Farrant's "Call to Remembrance" proved more alluring than some rather straitjacketed Byrd and Weelkes, it was the 20th-century extracts which fired the imagination: the Chinese- born Chen Yi's "Wild Grass", with its folklike filigree of spiralling and weaving repeated upper voice patterns (shades of Meredith Monk); two extracts from Augusta Read Thomas's l2-part Love Songs - one ("The Rub of Love") a pithy, short Anacreontic, the other ("Alas, the love of women!") a wittily contrived parody encompassing clustering close-harmonies, vocal strumming and ironic cackles.

It was to Read Thomas that the US-based, British-born Pulitzer prizewinning composer Bernard Rands (b l934) dedicated his Canti d'Amor, l5 beautifully evocative settings of Yeats, including two sung here with rare empathy, poise and subtlety of shading: "All day I hear the noise of waters making moan" and the solo-led "Sleep now".

Matthew Alber's fluent, gorgeously sustained soprano solo brought a nerve-tingling poignancy to "Sometimes I feel like a motherless child", one of the three spirituals arranged by Joseph Jennings, Chanticleer's enabling music director of l5 years. Tim Krol's colourful Gaelic delivery of the Irish encore "Dulaman" ("Seaweed") supplied the final icing on the cake.

Chanticleer's new CD, 'The Colors of Love', has just been issued by Teldec Classics