Will Todd: Mass in Blue (CR047)

Review by MusicWeb International

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Back in 2016 I was impressed by the debut album of Tom Bullard and the Nonsuch Singers which included Gabriel Jackson’s superb choral work To the field of stars (review). Here is their second release and the repertoire – and style of singing for which it calls – could hardly be more different.

Will Todd’s Mass in Blue has become extremely popular with choirs. To date there’s only been one recording, so far as I know. That was made by Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers with Bethany Halliday, the composer’s wife, singing the crucial soprano solo role. When I reviewed that disc I wondered how many other sopranos would have the range and the jazz singing skills to emulate Miss Halliday. Well, this new release answers that question.

There are a couple of very important differences between the two recordings. The choirs are similar in size: the Vasari number 32 singers (11/8/5/8) and the Nonsuch Singers have 36 singers (13/9/6/8). Both ensembles sing extremely well but they sound completely different. On the Vasari recording, which I note was produced by Will Todd himself, the performers are set at a distance from the microphones and the venue, The Warehouse, London, has quite a resonant acoustic. On this new recording the performers are recorded very closely. The sound is much more akin to what one might expect on a pop recording. Actually, the sound suits the music well but some may feel the performance is “in your face”; there were times when I did. The other key difference is that this new recording uses the jazz trio version of the score so the accompaniment is provided by piano, double bass and drums. This, I presume, is the first recording of this version. On the Vasari recording the ensemble version is used which means that in addition to the jazz trio we hear additional instruments, namely three woodwind/saxophones, two trumpets, three trombones and timpani. The accompaniment by jazz trio alone is very tight and suits this particular recording though I must admit that there were times when I missed the extra colours of the larger ensemble.

I was brought up short by the sound of the piano in the instrumental introduction. The sound of the instrument has a real edge to it – the instrument on the Vasari recording is much richer of tone at this point – and I’d go so far as to say the impression is almost akin to hearing an electric piano though a session photo in the booklet clearly shows a Steinway. After the first couple of minutes either my ears adjusted or the tone of the instrument, as recorded, improves. Once the singing begins in the Kyrie, the Nonsuch Singers offer tight, precise and committed singing. And once Joanna Forbes L’Estrange starts to sing it’s soon clear that she need not fear comparison with Bethany Halliday. Both singers give terrific performances on their respective recordings, though Miss Halliday is recorded much less closely and, as a result, her singing is rather more integrated with the choir though she is still most definitely a soloist.

The choir and trio perform the Gloria. In his notes conductor Tom Bullard calls this movement “a high-energy whirlwind of praise”. That’s entirely apt and his choir performs the movement as such. The Credo starts with swing-type music, highly suggestive of Gospel singing. Here the soloist takes the lead. The ‘Et incarnatus’ episode is a slow, soulful soprano solo which Joanna Forbes L’Estrange does really well. A little later on ‘Et resurrexit’ is fast and furious; here, the choir’s articulation is excellent. The end of the movement is absolutely full-on. The Sanctus is a slow jazz ballad for choir and the trio. The movement is a real winner and it’s given a super performance. After the Benedictus, the concluding movement is the Agnus Dei. Introduced by a mellow piano solo, the soprano soloist has a very free, meditative solo, which Joanna Forbes L’Estrange delivers with great feeling. Once the choir joins in the music grows in intensity until a powerful climax is achieved at ‘miserere’. After this the music subsides into another heartfelt soprano solo: movement and work seem to be heading for a subdued conclusion. If only Todd had left it there! Instead, at 6:25 he returns, quietly at first, to words and music from the Credo which soon erupts into an excited, Gospel-style finish. Tom Bullard describes this as “a masterstroke”. I’m afraid that I respectfully disagree. Less is often more and this strikes me as a prime case. To be sure, the reprise of music from the Credo makes for a big, affirmative finish but to me the device seems contrived. The simpler, more intimate mood established before the Credo reprise would have made for a much more satisfying conclusion.

So, I still have reservations about the work itself but precious few about this performance. Tom Bullard gets dynamic, committed singing from the Nonsuch Singers, Joanna Forbes L’Estrange is a fabulous soloist and the jazz trio are good and tight. For my taste the recording is a bit too close and for that reason, plus my preference for the fuller accompaniment, I think the Vasari Singers have the edge. But if the close recording doesn’t bother you then this is an excellent account of Mass in Blue.

The Vasari Singers filled the rest of their disc with more choral pieces by Todd. Tom Bullard has gone in a different direction and offers us a selection of choral arrangements of jazz standards. Apparently, all of these arrangements were made for one-voice-to-a-part ensembles but they seem to me to work well when sung by this choir. Love walked in is heard in a Ward Swingle arrangement which, surprisingly, hasn’t been recorded before. On a Clear Day includes a scat solo by Joanna Forbes L’Estrange. I’m afraid this is a style that does nothing for me, despite her expertise. Much more to my taste is the a cappellaarrangement of Someone to Watch over Me. The choir’s music features rich chords and there’s an important solo role for Miss Forbes L’Estrange. The performance is super. Beyond the sea is an arrangement of the Charles Trenet classic, La Mer. The arrangement was made for The King’s Singers and so, presumably, was unaccompanied but here it’s given with the addition of a jazz trio. The arrangement is skilful, as is the performance, but give me Trenet’s original any day.

With L’il Darlin’ and Back Bay Shuffle we’re back to arrangements by Ward Swingle. These two are his take on songs originally made famous by the big bands of Count Basie and Artie Shaw respectively. These arrangements are especially interesting in that, apart from the addition of words, Swingle has effectively vocalised the band arrangements so that, for example, one set of singers deliver the five trumpet parts and so on. I loved the slow smokiness of L’il Darlin’ while the upbeat Back Bay Shuffle gets an exuberant, precise performance. There’s an indirect Ward Swingle connection with the last piece in that Joanna Forbes L’Estrange was for some years (until 2004) Musical Director of the Swingle Singers. Her husband, Alexander L’Estrange made this arrangement of Michel Legrand’s How do you keep the music playing? for her final concert with the group. It’s a memorable song and the arrangement, which understandably, foregrounds Miss Forbes L’Estrange, is a fine one. In several ways this is an ideal way to conclude this album.

This is an entertaining disc and I enjoyed it. The performances are first rate and while the recording may be close it certainly has impact, and that serves this sort of music well. Tom Bullard not only conducts the performances most effectively but has also contributed lively booklet notes.

John Quinn, MusicWeb International, 21st September 2019

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