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Chicago A Cappella

Shall I Compare Thee? (2005)

4.3

December 31, 2005

Tuning / Blend 4.7
Energy / Intensity 4.0
Innovation / Creativity 4.7
Soloists 4.3
Sound / Production 3.3
Repeat Listenability 3.7
Tracks
1 Kevin Olson (b. 1970): Summer Sonnet 4.0
2 Martha Sullivan (b. 1964): Blow, blow, thou winter wind 4.0
3 Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963): Four Shakespeare Songs 4.3
4 Matthew Harris (b. 1956): It Was a Lover and his Lass 4.3
5 Harris: Take, O Take Those Lips Away 4.7
6 Harris: Who is Silvia? 4.3
7 Harris: And Will A’Not Come Again?* 4.3
8 John Rutter (b. 1945): It Was a Lover and his Lass 4.0
9 Nils Lindberg (b. 1933): Shall I compare? 4.0
10 Håkan Parkman (1955–1988): Madrigal (Take, O Take Those Lips Away) 4.0
11 Parkman: Sonnet 147 (My love is as a fever) 4.3
12 György Orbán (b. 1947):Orpheus with his lute 4.0
13 Orbán: O mistress mine! 4.0
14 Juhani Komulainen (b. 1953): Four Ballads of Shakespeare 4.3
15 Robert Applebaum (b. 1941): Spring* 4.3
16 Applebaum: Witches’ Blues* 4.3
17 Applebaum: Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 4.3

Recorded 2004 – 2005
Total time: 63:00, 17 songs


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 5
Tracks
1 Kevin Olson (b. 1970): Summer Sonnet 5
2 Martha Sullivan (b. 1964): Blow, blow, thou winter wind 5
3 Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963): Four Shakespeare Songs 5
4 Matthew Harris (b. 1956): It Was a Lover and his Lass 5
5 Harris: Take, O Take Those Lips Away 5
6 Harris: Who is Silvia? 5
7 Harris: And Will A’Not Come Again?* 5
8 John Rutter (b. 1945): It Was a Lover and his Lass 5
9 Nils Lindberg (b. 1933): Shall I compare? 5
10 Håkan Parkman (1955–1988): Madrigal (Take, O Take Those Lips Away) 5
11 Parkman: Sonnet 147 (My love is as a fever) 5
12 György Orbán (b. 1947):Orpheus with his lute 5
13 Orbán: O mistress mine! 5
14 Juhani Komulainen (b. 1953): Four Ballads of Shakespeare 5
15 Robert Applebaum (b. 1941): Spring* 5
16 Applebaum: Witches’ Blues* 5
17 Applebaum: Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 5

Sweet, sweet precision. It is such a delight when a crisp album rolls our way, bringing the sublime pleasure of thinking about intonation, as opposed to wincing. It is even better when this musicality comes wrapped around a charming program of varied yet cohesive repertoire.

Shall I Compare Thee? is a selection of recently composed classical music using Shakespearean texts. The Elizabethan language contrasts with the decidedly modern harmonies. Each song has a unique character, sometimes over the top and sometimes subtle. All are worth multiple listens, with new features revealing themselves each time. Listen for the medieval cadence in the middle of Martha Sullivan's driving Blow, blow thou winter wind or the interspersed unisons and dissonances of Gyorgy Orban's Orpheus with his lute. Dare yourself not to laugh at Jaakko Mantyjarvi's setting of the witches from Macbeth. And revel in the bewitching simplicity of Matthew Harris's It Was A Lover and his Lass, the perhaps outright prettiest piece on the disc.

Or perhaps it's the closing setting of Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? This is only the second album this year I've listened to repeatedly out of sheer interest (the other was Shedding). It's worth the time. Songs I didn't like at first — the album opener springs to mind — came into focus with a little repetition, as did the odd jangling chord or blurry entrance. Nitpicking doesn't do this record justice, not when you take in the project's detail and artistry.

The voices on this record are trained and pleasing, from the soaring soprano that pierces the mix so often to the lovely tenors and lush baritones and basses. The alto soloist on Who Is Sylvia seems lacking in color for such a prominent role, but the section as a whole blends beautifully with the ensemble. Choral professionalism is a remarkable quality, and Chicago A Cappella seems to have it in spades.

This is a delightful recording. It is a treat to add it to the contemporary a cappella canon.


Tuning / Blend 4
Energy / Intensity 3
Innovation / Creativity 5
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 2
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Kevin Olson (b. 1970): Summer Sonnet 3
2 Martha Sullivan (b. 1964): Blow, blow, thou winter wind 3
3 Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963): Four Shakespeare Songs 3
4 Matthew Harris (b. 1956): It Was a Lover and his Lass 3
5 Harris: Take, O Take Those Lips Away 4
6 Harris: Who is Silvia? 4
7 Harris: And Will A’Not Come Again?* 3
8 John Rutter (b. 1945): It Was a Lover and his Lass 3
9 Nils Lindberg (b. 1933): Shall I compare? 3
10 Håkan Parkman (1955–1988): Madrigal (Take, O Take Those Lips Away) 3
11 Parkman: Sonnet 147 (My love is as a fever) 3
12 György Orbán (b. 1947):Orpheus with his lute 3
13 Orbán: O mistress mine! 3
14 Juhani Komulainen (b. 1953): Four Ballads of Shakespeare 3
15 Robert Applebaum (b. 1941): Spring* 3
16 Applebaum: Witches’ Blues* 4
17 Applebaum: Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 3

This just might be the perfect wedding present. The cover has blue in it and while the texts are hundreds of years old, the music is all new. Lend it and you're all set. Nuptual economy aside, Chicago A Cappella's Shall I Compare Thee? is aptly subtitled "Choral Songs on Shakespeare Texts". At times harmonically challenging and at times simple and lyric, the songs are adaptations of the Bard's best by fourteen composers in their own personal composition styles.

RARB's mandate is to compare this collection to the rest of the recorded a cappella universe. That's pretty tough to do when the classical genre is so very different from jazz, rock, doo-wop, pop and r&b- the mainstays of recorded a cappella. Both tone color and production tone of the live spaces are so dark, so covered as to obscure the lyrics to any but the most attentive listeners. That's normal for classical choral works, but it's distracting as compared with almost all the recorded a cappella available today. That's a genre difference as much as anything, but it pulled the scoring down, as did the intonation and blend that, though good for live performance, simply don't stand up to the studio magic of most of today's recordings. The musicality on the other hand was superior to most so the track scoring was a challenge. I'd ignore the numbers as a Frankenstein of compromises.

Each piece has its hooks: exciting dynamics, unusual chords, surprising progressions; but no one piece stood out to me as particularly gripping. No melody lodged itself in my mind as unforgettable, no soloist as exceptional. That's not the criticism it might appear to be. "Shall I" can be best appreciated as a collection and Chicago A cappella as an ensemble. One can study the different approaches of the composers. One can listen end to end and be immersed in Shakespeare through these different yet still connected lenses. And the comparison can be as rewarding as the shorter term pay-off of pop music. Some would say more so.

Seven world premiere recordings. 63 minutes of music. 23 tracks of new material. "Shall I compare Thee?" Ye shall. But not to the pop, rock, and jazz a cappella releases of today. Compare thee instead more favorably to the world of classical choral releases.


Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 3
Tracks
1 Kevin Olson (b. 1970): Summer Sonnet 4
2 Martha Sullivan (b. 1964): Blow, blow, thou winter wind 4
3 Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963): Four Shakespeare Songs 5
4 Matthew Harris (b. 1956): It Was a Lover and his Lass 5
5 Harris: Take, O Take Those Lips Away 5
6 Harris: Who is Silvia? 4
7 Harris: And Will A’Not Come Again?* 5
8 John Rutter (b. 1945): It Was a Lover and his Lass 4
9 Nils Lindberg (b. 1933): Shall I compare? 4
10 Håkan Parkman (1955–1988): Madrigal (Take, O Take Those Lips Away) 4
11 Parkman: Sonnet 147 (My love is as a fever) 5
12 György Orbán (b. 1947):Orpheus with his lute 4
13 Orbán: O mistress mine! 4
14 Juhani Komulainen (b. 1953): Four Ballads of Shakespeare 5
15 Robert Applebaum (b. 1941): Spring* 5
16 Applebaum: Witches’ Blues* 4
17 Applebaum: Sonnet 18: Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? 5

I had insomnia recently, and Shall I Compare Thee? was the only remedy for my wakeful eyes. This isn't to say that I was lulled to sleep by boredom from Chicago A Cappella Quite the contrary; I was coaxed to sleep with beautiful, restrained performances that soothed me and made me smile in the dark.

The group explains in the (meaty and highly polished) liner notes that the works on Shall I Compare Thee? are the result of a competition. A line reads: "The intent of this disc remains to showcase the music of composers of our time, who have so deftly and lovingly set to music the immortal words of Shakespeare." The result is a collection of unique yet remarkably cohesive choral works from a myriad of skilled composers. I'll admit, it was difficult to sleep through Harris's It Was a Lover and his Lass because of the lump in my throat that formed from the tenderness of this piece. The proceeding Harris pieces continued to be moving; And Will A'Not Come Again? was particularly strong. I hope Mr. Harris feels great pride over his work. Soloist Amy Conn exposed the haunting text of Sonnet 147 masterfully, and Komulainen's rich Four Ballads of Shakespeare created surreal and powerful images as I listened in the night.

Incredible music. It was especially interesting to hear the wildly different approaches on separate pieces with the same text. However, the sound clarity could have been much crisper. The voices sound distant and muted, which fosters a warm blend, but also prohibits the listener from hearing unique timbres and individual deliveries. Yet it's somewhat hypocritical of me to want closer microphones. The distance certainly calms the sopranos, who were frequently piercing on Chicago A Cappella's last album, Eclectic. This problem is generally absent on Shall I Compare Thee?, with only a few fleeting moments of harshness. I guess we shouldn't fix what isn't broken. However, I will suggest to Chicago A Cappella that they check the general sound level from track to track before finalizing their next album, as I had to manually increase the volume from time to time, which I shouldn't have to do.

Shall I Compare Thee? represents tremendous talent from both the composers and the performers. Since it is such a solid concept album, the potential for educational use is very high. Many university music departments and libraries would benefit from Shall I Compare Thee?, and I urge Chicago A Cappella to explore this market, if they haven't already.

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