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Rastlose Liebe
Apollon Classics RK ap 10108

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Album Français
Apollon Classics RK ap 10107

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The Book of Madrigals
Apollon Classics RK ap 10106
In 1992 former choristers of the boys' choir of Leipzig's St. Thomas Church founded an a cappella vocal ensemble they called Amarcord. They have not been on my radar, although their repertoire consists largely of medieval and Renaissance music, but in the last decade they won a few competitions and have released a series of recordings on the Apollon Classics label. Next Wednesday the group will give a free lunchtime concert at the National Gallery of Art (March 17, 12:10 pm), the start of a U.S. tour lasting about a fortnight. The program has been announced as consisting of "16th- and 17th-century German music," which may include some of the selections from the best of their three recent releases, The Book of Madrigals. Their sound -- all male, with all the singers listed as tenors, baritones, or basses -- puts one in mind of the King's Singers, with the highest voices actually going quite a bit above the normal tenor range. The balance and intonation are quite beautiful, with only a few times the lower voices pushing the higher ones into unpleasant stridency.

The Madrigals release is not really devoted solely to madrigals -- like one of the King's Singers discs that I have listened to repeatedly over the years when I get an itch for English madrigals -- but the more general category of male-voice partsongs. A few German accents in the English mean that the King's Singers are still the reference in this repertory, but there are a number of fascinating rarities (as well as some of the usual suspects) in this compilation, including some charming pieces by Ludwig Senfl, a few hilarious evocations of animal noises by Adriano Banchieri, Antonio Scandello, and Juan del Encina, and the gorgeous Triste départ by Nicholas Gombert (whose death in 1560 makes this his 450th anniversary year). The participation of veteran percussionist Michael Metzler, while highly speculative in the creation of what are basically backbeats, makes for some of the best tracks, especially the opening Now is the month of Maying, which has ensured that I never hear Thomas Morley's music quite the same way ever again.

The other two recent releases that have been in my ears lately are less easy to recommend, interesting certainly, well performed, but just not must-have discs. The latest, Rastlose Liebe, is a self-declared "declaration of love to our hometown, Leipzig." It includes pieces for male chorus by one-time Leipzig-based composers Robert Schumann (one of this year's anniversary boys), Felix Mendelssohn (anniversary last year), and relative unknowns Carl Steinacker, Heinrich Mühling, Carl Friedrich Zöllner, and the Marschners (Heinrich August and lesser-known relative Adolf Eduard). Not much of it is all that distinguished -- lots of lush, chromatically turned harmony denoting love, longing, anguish, whatever -- but there are a few little delights like Zöllner's Der Speisezettel, a hilarious setting of the words from an actual restaurant menu, collected by the composer at Zill's Tunnel in Leipzig, and H. A. Marschner's Testament, a memorable drinking song, and charmingly nerdy Declaration of Love by a Tailor's Apprentice, as well as A. E. Marschner's simple but harmonically interesting Ständchen, a nifty piece that men's choirs should be singing more often.

The group's selection of French pieces for male chorus (Album Français) is noteworthy because it includes all of Poulenc's works for the combination: Salut, Dame Sainte from the Quatre petites prières de Saint François d'Assise is particularly lovely. Poulenc occasionally indulges in the music-hall harmonic progressions he loved to use in his secular songs (Seigneur, je vous prie), but many of these sacred works are on the austere side, seemingly in imitation of chant and medieval polyphony. Much of the music recorded here is of a disappointingly similar character, in the style of so many forgettable Romantic pieces (the Rossini and Saint-Saëns), but then there is Milhaud's 7-voice setting of Psalm 121 (122), I was glad when they said unto me (Laetatus sum), a test of the ensemble's close-harmony intonation, and the lovely and odd set of meditative songs by Jean Cras, Dans la montagne.

Hear the singing of Amarcord in person at their free lunchtime concert next Wednesday at the National Gallery of Art (March 17, 12:10 pm).

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