REVIEW: on “Christmas with Cantus”

by David Vernier –

Artistic Quality 9/10 Sound Quality

Here’s an early Christmas treat from the always entertaining Minneapolis-based men’s ensemble Cantus, whose nine voices are always impeccably tuned, scrupulously balanced, perfectly blended, and artfully expressive. And the group, which performs without a conductor, never fails to convey a collective joy and spirit in every piece they sing.

The program is typically eclectic, featuring everything from traditional carols–Nowell! Nowell!, Coventry Carol (Vaughan Williams), Noël nouvelet, ‘Twas in the moon of wintertime, Peter Wilhousky’s arrangement of Leontovich’s Carol of the Bells–to modern settings of Ave Maria (Biebl) and O magnum mysterium (a world-premiere by Brian A. Schmidt), and even a few pop-ish standards–Do you hear what I hear? (Harry Simeone), Have yourself a merry little Christmas (a gorgeous new arrangement by Cantus member Chris Foss)–and a spiritual, Rise up, shepherd, and follow, in a snappy concert-ending tribute to today’s college-group/jazz/a cappella style, arranged by Michael Engelhardt.

Several of the pieces are arrangements by Cantus members, the best of which are the above-mentioned Have yourself a merry little Christmas, Gary Ruschman’s Nowell! Nowell!, and Timothy Takach’s ‘Twas in the moon of wintertime, by far one of the better of the zillion arrangements of this popular carol. Other highlights are the Norwegian Advent hymn Folkefrelsar, Til Oss Kom and the performances of Coventry Carol and Noël Nouvelet, which are exquisite, unadorned examples of male singing at its most pure and beautiful. There are also many examples of lovely solo singing throughout, but notable are the two in Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

I could have done without the ubiquitous, way-too-long-for-its-material Biebl (the Pachelbel Canon of choral music)–and in fact, Brian Schmidt’s O magnum mysterium is a much better piece–and certainly wouldn’t have missed yet another unctuous entry from John Tavener (Awed by the beauty); and while the juxtaposition of Pat-a-pan and The little drummer boy is interesting, the heavily percussive arrangement (we get the drum, already!) is a bit much, and a bit repetitive.

Happily, the excessive reverb that overwhelmed Cantus’ earlier Christmas recordings (from 2004/2005–type Q8385 and Q9474 in Search Reviews) is gone, and with an almost completely new lineup of singers (and one less than before) the group sound is even more refined, more present. Bravo! to all concerned–and thanks for getting this out early enough to thoroughly enjoy before the season is over!