In a matter of minutes Skylark Vocal Ensemble‘s Matthew Guard’s ONCE UPON A TIME riveted my attention. The concept is new to me, as are the names of many of the composers of the various choral compositions in this album: thirty in total.
Here Francis Poulenc, Leonard Bernstein and Ralph Vaughn Williams keep company with several Finnish, Latvian and Estonian composers, while anchoring the entire affair there is the compelling music of Benedict Sheehan, now meditative, now jittery, and unfailingly interesting throughout the sixty-seven minutes of the album. Maintaining the interest, there is the gorgeously spoken narrative by Sarah Walker wrapped in a youthfully gentle voice that evokes the sound of a young mother telling tales at bedtime.
But these tales are terrifying, not bowdlerized and sweetened for popular consumption on a Broadway stage or an animated film for children. There is primal terror and cruelty in much of the grim writing of the Grimm Brothers, and a Northern European sensibility about matters of the heart in Hans Christian Andersen’s tales, and the supple English translations spoken here by Sarah Walker in friendly middle-American work to perfection.
The album, created from a-to-z by Skylark and available directly from them (www.skylarkensemble.org) is a fascinating concept, taking two familiar fairytales and interspersing them with music apposite to the changing moments in the story (https://youtu.be/QpXM0Uf8rbM)
Taking the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Skylark’s artistic director Matthew Guard leads his chameleonic twenty-strong vocal ensemble, drawing from them sounds that range from the ethereal through the earthbound. The group’s sopranos inhabit the above-the-staff region with complete ease, with the altos and tenors providing silky sounds in the middle range, and the basses smoothly underpinning the music.
Having previously listened to and reviewed Skylarks’ work I continue to be surprised by the inventive explorations of this indispensable enterprise.
Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com