Every year, Chanticleer gives a Christmas concert in New York, and in many other places. This year is different, of course: not a year for touring. And yet there is a new album: Chanticleer Sings Christmas (Warner Classics).
Chanticleer is a twelve-man a cappella group from San Francisco, founded in 1978. I have written about them for—what? Twenty, twenty-five years now? Almost annually.
Their new Christmas album is their eighth—not their eighth album but their eighth Christmas album. The repertoire of the season is almost inexhaustible. No. 8 is a total winner. One of the things I like best about it is that it’s like a Chanticleer concert (Christmas concert). It does not concentrate on one type of music. It’s a variety show, ranging from ancient to modern.
Perhaps it’s the concert they would have given on tour this year, if touring were possible?
The album, like a Chanticleer concert, begins with plainsong. Then it moves into the Renaissance and early Baroque periods: Byrd, Hassler, Victoria, et al. You have a dose of French, a dose of Spanish, a dose of a lot of things. There are traditional carols, arranged by Robert Shaw, for example. And, as always, spirituals (often the highlight of a Chanticleer concert for me and others).
In great detail, I have critiqued Chanticleer in the past. I should not repeat myself. But I will say that, in their new album, they exhibit the qualities we have come to expect from them. Among these are precision, taste, and spirit. Chanticleer does not gild the lily. They do not emote or show off. Their communication is honest and usually moving. Sometimes thrilling.
I first heard Chanticleer in the late 1990s, I believe, when the group appeared at the Carmel Bach Festival in California. I didn’t want to go to the concert. I had a hole in my schedule, which I needed to fill. As I think about it, I had a bias against Chanticleer. Not sure why. I guess I expected them to be schmaltzy and cheap—a little Vegas. Instead, I found a serious, disciplined, versatile, wonderfully expressive musical ensemble.
One of the singers featured on the new album is Cortez Mitchell. Let me paste a paragraph from a review I wrote four years ago:
Throughout the concert, individual members of the group had solo moments. Near the end, Cortez Mitchell, a countertenor, had one, briefly. I realize that Chanticleer is egalitarian. There are no stars in this group. But, if I had my way, Mitchell would be featured a bit more. I doubt other Chanticleer members would mind, and I know audiences wouldn’t. He is extraordinary.
An album is a souvenir, among other things. I’m talking about virtually any album. What was it like to attend a performance of so-and-so? What was it like to be there? An album answers this question, the best it can. To say it again: one of the best things about Chanticleer Sings Christmas is that it is a ticket to an actual Chanticleer Christmas concert. And that is a very, very satisfying experience.