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01 March 2020

The Road Home – “Beautiful renditions of devotional American choral music” ★★★★★

by Henry Fogel (Fanfare)

Willow Consort is a British chamber choir, founded in 2014 and directed by Danny Purtell. On the evidence of this disc, they are a superb ensemble who sing with a perfect blend of voices and great expressiveness. Although the blurb on the back of the tray card states that this disc presents “a small survey of some of the lesser-known gems of the repertoire,” the opening work is the very familiar spiritual “Deep River,” rendered here with exquisite beauty.

In much of the music the composers and arrangers display a considerable degree of harmonic imagination, and the perfect intonation of Willow Consort is an essential ingredient in clarifying the harmonies employed. Equally impressive is the ensemble’s ability to sing in hushed tones without losing tonal body (the opening of Dominick DiOrio’s “I Am” is a good example). One of the highlights of the disc is Stephen Paulus’s “The Road Home,” from which the album takes its title. As a setting of a song from The Southern Harmony Songbook of 1835, it demonstrates the composer’s special ability to create a wide range of colors even when limited to a small choir. The work has been recorded before, occasionally with an excess of emotion. The simplicity of utterance and carefully controlled dynamic shading of this reading are ideal.

The major composition here is Bern Herbolsheimer’s Seven Last Words, a 26-minute setting of Christ’s words on the Cross. The text alternates Latin and English. Using English allows the composer to intensify our focus on the words themselves. The music exhibits a great range of intensity and drama, from the quietly reverential and devotional (“Amen dico tibi,” or “Truly, I say to you today you will be with me in paradise”) to the intensely anguished (“Eli, lama sabatani?” or “God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?”). Willow Consort movingly conveys the full breadth of the music.

The recording was made at St. Thomas with St. Maurice Church in York, and the engineering finds the sweet spot between spaciousness and detail. Puttell’s program notes are helpful as far as they go, but they are a bit skimpy and do not even mention the Paulus work. I do not, however, want to end on a negative note. For those who respond to devotional choral music this disc is very highly recommended; it is hard to imagine these works being given better treatment.

Henry Fogel, Fanfare, March 2020