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Kühn Choir of Prague

Voices of Earth and Air, Vol IV (2022)


September 24, 2023

Tuning / Blend 3.3
Energy / Intensity 3.7
Innovation / Creativity 4.0
Soloists 4.0
Sound / Production 3.7
Repeat Listenability 2.7
1 Lilacs 3.3
2 My Hiding Place 4.7
3 AdiraÏ (misplaced) 3.7
4 How Can I Keep From Singing? 2.7
5 That Music Always Round Me 4.0
6 Royal Tears of Red 4.0
7 I Arise 4.3
8 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: Orpheus with his lute 3.0
9 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: Music has charms 2.7
10 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: To music, to becalm his fever 2.7
11 Alleluia 4.7

Recorded 2022
Total time: 53:34, 11 songs

Tuning / Blend 5
Energy / Intensity 5
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 5
Sound / Production 5
Repeat Listenability 4
1 Lilacs 5
2 My Hiding Place 5
3 AdiraÏ (misplaced) 5
4 How Can I Keep From Singing? 4
5 That Music Always Round Me 5
6 Royal Tears of Red 5
7 I Arise 5
8 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: Orpheus with his lute 3
9 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: Music has charms 3
10 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: To music, to becalm his fever 3
11 Alleluia 5

Voices of Earth and Air, Vol IV is the latest album by the Kühn Choir of Prague, one of the largest Czech choirs with a history spanning more than sixty years. Quoted from its website, the Kühn Choir of Prague "devotes itself to the choral repertoire of all periods, and its activities include significant performances of contemporary music, performances of large vocal-instrumental works in collaboration with leading Czech orchestras and, last but not least, projects for the performance and recording of film music." Voices of Earth and Air, Vol IV features a wide variety of original works from composers Heidi Jacob, Lydia Jane Pugh, Robert Lowry, Raymond E. Fahrner, Denice Ribbentrop, Sheila Bristow, John Robertson, and Marty Regan.

The album begins with Lilacs, an original piece composed by Haverford College Professor of Music, Heidi Jacob, that is based on text from stanzas 1, 2, 20, and 21 of Walt Whitman's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. Written in 4-parts throughout, the music is simply breathtaking. Jacob's use of octaves and unisons that fold out into more complex and dissonant chords perfectly captures the mood of the text. Coupled with a soprano solo by Kristÿna Fílová and narration by Amina Robinson, Lilacs sets the bar very high right out of the gate.

The two pieces that follow, My Hiding Place and Adiraï, were both written by award-winning singer, composer, and vocal coach, Lydia Jane Pugh. My Hiding Place is an original setting of Psalm 37 that will leave you speechless. This might be my favorite track on the album, I would love to program it for a spring concert. Adiraï was selected as the winner of the Nathan Davis Prize for Composition after being commissioned by the Young New Yorkers' Chorus as part of their 2018 Young Composers Competition. The piece tells the story of the evacuated Channel Islands during World War II.

How Can I Keep From Singing? and That Music Always Round Me were both written by award-winning composer and conductor, Raymond E. Fahrner. The first is a soulful 3-minute arrangement of Robert W. Lowry's 19th-century hymn, while the second is a 3-minute original piece that showcases a palette of vocal textures that will leave some listeners awestruck. The piece that follows, Royal Tears of Red, was written by composer of sacred choral music, Denice Ribbentrop. Beautifully performed and written, Royal Tears of Red has so many wonderful moments that highlight the intense nature of the text. I Arise by composer Sheila Bristow is an incredible and mind-bending choral work. The music is deeply complex, both harmonically and emotionally. The tone quality and musicality that the Kühn Choir of Prague brings to the music is seriously impressive.

Choruses about Music, Op. 16 is an original piece by the New Zealand-born Canadian composer, E. J. Robertson. Written in three movements — Orpheus with his lute, Music has charms, and To music, to becalm his fever, this 9-minute concert work is masterfully performed by the ensemble. From a musical perspective, however, this corner of the album struggles. Boring, predictable 4-part chromatic harmony paired with almost exclusively polyphonic vocal textures suffers against some of the more ambitious works featured on this album.

The album concludes with Alleluia, an extraordinary original piece written by Texas A&M University Associate Professor of Music, Marty Regan. A dynamic and intense choral work, Alleluia takes listeners on a harmonic journey through a seemingly endless series of tonal centers. The expressive depth of the performances on this album is remarkable, from the effortless soprano solo in Lilacs to the heartbreaking story of Adiraï and the profound, soul-altering nature of Alleluia. Voices of Earth and Air, Vol IV is a comprehensive and disciplined collection of performances by the Kühn Choir of Prague that deserves your immediate attention.

Tuning / Blend 3
Energy / Intensity 4
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 3
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Lilacs 3
2 My Hiding Place 4
3 AdiraÏ (misplaced) 3
4 How Can I Keep From Singing? 2
5 That Music Always Round Me 4
6 Royal Tears of Red 4
7 I Arise 4
8 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: Orpheus with his lute 3
9 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: Music has charms 3
10 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: To music, to becalm his fever 3
11 Alleluia 5

The second-most recent edition of a decade-old series, Voices of Earth and Air, Vol IV is a collection of contemporary choral works by seven seasoned composers performed by the Kühn Choir of Prague under the Navona Records label. Unlike standard RARB fare, rather than recording individually in a professional studio, the bulk of this album was recorded with a larger group of singers in a chapel. As such, considerations are different for the music director, group members, production team, and even the listener. With that in mind, the musical and storytelling feats performed by the Kühn Choir of Prague should be lauded above all else.

The degree of difficulty involved with live a cappella music is high enough; it is compounded when considering the contemporary classical choral style, marked less by Bach-like mathematical sense and Mozartean flowy tunefulness, but by painting emotional ideas with extended harmonic and melodic language that bucks or expands traditional function. The result for singers is often music that requires even greater command of the voice, as it may contain unexpected or larger intervals between notes to be deftly navigated without instrumental guidance. Additionally, performing with a large group in a live space often requires near-perfection in longer takes, as it is more difficult to splice than in a studio with singular singers. That said, to lock complex chords and display great musicality far more often than not are a testament to the skill of the Kühn Choir of Prague and its conductor, Lenka Navrátilová.

Particularly stunning are Royal Tears of Red with its bold chord progressions, tricky intervals, dynamic contrast, and handling of text painting on words like "falling"; and Alleluia for its stunning energy, balance, and variation on a single word of text. I Arise is a slow burn to a very powerful finish. And as a palate cleanser after the epic opening track, My Hiding Place contrasts as delightfully resonant, digestible, and consonant.

That said, the challenges inherent in recording this way naturally produces some issues difficult to resolve, such as intonation. Nearly every piece grapples with pitch accuracy to some extent: it's only a matter of how pronounced, pivotal, and prolonged the pitch inaccuracies are, perhaps most notably at the top of How Can I Keep From Singing? and onward. Balance and rhythmic/vowel cohesion appear to suffer at times as well, particularly with the trio of movements by John Robertson. To be clear, this is not a criticism of the piece, as unlike many contemporary a cappella groups, the choir did not compose or arrange its own music; it merely programmed it, and it is not this reviewer's task to critique the composition itself but to assess the interpretation and execution, which in this case are not unified. But to the group's credit, in every piece there is also recovery and expression of some evocative chord, such as in My Hiding Place and That Music Always Round Me.

Contemporary choral music is certainly not simple to perform or produce, and to have released five volumes of music at the time of writing is greatly to the Kühn Choir of Prague's credit. If you are a fan of beautiful music and au naturel singing, this is definitely the album for you.

Tuning / Blend 2
Energy / Intensity 2
Innovation / Creativity 4
Soloists 4
Sound / Production 3
Repeat Listenability 2
1 Lilacs 2
2 My Hiding Place 5
3 AdiraÏ (misplaced) 3
4 How Can I Keep From Singing? 2
5 That Music Always Round Me 3
6 Royal Tears of Red 3
7 I Arise 4
8 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: Orpheus with his lute 3
9 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: Music has charms 2
10 Choruses about Music, Op. 16: To music, to becalm his fever 2
11 Alleluia 4

Traditional SATB choral music may sometimes seem limited in its versatility and range of expression, but I'd argue the opposite: limitations foster creativity and Kühn Choir of Prague showcases exactly how. This structure does, however, demand higher levels of polish and attention to detail in order to minimize distractions. Exposed sound can be powerful but it also makes vulnerabilities more apparent. Voices of Earth and Air, Vol. IV presents a variety of compositions with a lot of diversity and interesting opportunities but fumbles much of them with a very apparent lack of polish and unity. Additionally, inconsistent phrasing and tuning makes much of it feel under-rehearsed, and it makes a lot of the more interesting composition choices backfire.

The opening track, Lilacs, is probably the biggest example of this. The underlying composition seems really interesting and I love a lot of the harmonic motion intended in it. The solo work is also fantastic. But the choir's phrasing lacks momentum throughout and doesn't carry energy through the empty spaces sufficiently. The phrasing itself has a lot of choppy wording which doesn't help. There are also far too many tuning issues present, which undermines the colorful harmonies of the arrangement and ruins the moments of cadence. The spoken word part could've landed if not for these issues, but with these problems, that spoken word sounds cheesy rather than haunting.

My Hiding Place, on the other hand, sounds like a completely different ensemble. Tuning is far more consistent, section blend is way more stable, and phrase-to-phrase momentum keeps the track engaging from start to finish. The one remaining sticking point is that phrase entrances are a bit rough, lacking solid sync almost across the board. That being said, all the other aspects are so good and so improved from the previous track that it's easier for me to ignore.

The inconsistency of the ensemble sound becomes the biggest driver for which pieces I enjoyed more or less. Those aforementioned phrase entrances continue to haunt AdiraÏ, which would otherwise be excellent. The lack of confidence and unity means that every new phrase causes a blip in the choir's beautiful core ensemble sound. The poor ensemble tuning at the beginning of How Can I Keep From Singing? is really distracting. It takes a while for the song to start locking and even then it almost never fully clicks. The core blend and tuning are improved on That Music Always Round Me, but the more chaotic and intense composition doubly requires clean and consistent phrase entrances and exits, and they're still far too sloppy here. Royal Tears of Red is much more stable, but the performance starts losing engagement about halfway through. And Choruses about Music, Op 16, as a whole, overstays its welcome for a similar issue.

That being said, when it's great, it's really great. I Arise could also use a bit more phrase-by-phrase momentum, but the shorter length prevents this from being a big problem and allows the beautiful choir core sound to carry it. And Alleluia is a great finale piece that keeps the album ending on a high note. Additionally, even in the low points, interesting compositions keep the runtime intriguing and worth a listen, and very rarely does Kühn Choir of Prague retread ground across the eleven tracks.

To its credit, Kühn Choir of Prague seems to not have any problems picking interesting, diverse, and risk-taking repertoire. It's all the rough edges that need polishing. Putting in more focused work on the fundamentals of sync, tuning, blend, and phrase momentum will pay dividends. It may seem boring, but it's that type of "boring" work that will make all the interesting things the group wants to do truly sparkle.


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