Commentary Magazine


Angel Voices?

Our culture’s uneasiness about raising an unruly new generation of rugrats may have caused, at least in part, a reactionary wave of nostalgia for “angelic” child singers. The sentimental 2004 French film The Chorus made treble singing popular across Europe, following the English precedent of the “angelic” boy soprano soloists in hugely popular (although schlocky) modern choral music like Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Requiem. This precedent has been superseded by a new EMI Classics release on CD and DVD, Angel Voices: Libera in Concert.

Libera is a South London boys’ choir directed by Robert Prizeman, which tours the world to frenzied acclaim. Their trademark garments are white monastic robes, and their closely miked voices sing, on the “Angel Voices” program, a series of peculiarly morbid tunes. These include Going Home, sung to the famous tune from Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony; the lugubrious hymn Abide with Me; and an original Prizeman composition, Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep. Much of what these Brit moppets sing is about is cheery as Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children), yet ecstatic audiences lap up their concert all the same.

Fans of restrained romantic music with treble solo singing like Fauré’s Requiem may find themselves lost in this new world of overblown kitsch. After all, kids are not really angels or convenient symbols of death. They can be expressive singers in their own right, but need a little guidance, otherwise they can commit grievous errors of taste in repertory, like the little German boy who squalls one of the Queen of the Night’s arias from Mozart’s Magic Flute on Youtube, apparently because no one told him not to. Healthier by far is the feisty, characterful treble singing in Bach Cantatas No. 31 & 50 conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt; on these CD’s, newly reissued by Warner Classics, the Vienna Boys’ Choir is hyperenergetic to the point of bullying, bringing an authentic flavor of the schoolyard tantrum to the music (Bach, who fathered twenty children, doubtless knew all about this kind of exuberant expressiveness).

The bossy, know-it-all Viennese tykes send out the sacred message, expressing their own personalities instead of concealing them behind some adult’s edulcorated view of childhood. This is along the lines of another memorable Vienna Boys’ Choir recording, an aggressive Mozart Requiem conducted by Hans Gillesberger without a trace of “angel voice” sentimentality.

A new CD of Handel’s Messiah from Naxos also matches this earthy and realistic approach, which reconstructs a 1751 London performing version of the familiar choral work, nicknamed the “Misogynist’s Messiah” because women are banished from their usual soprano, alto, and choral roles, and replaced by trebles from the Choir of New College Oxford. The three pre-teen treble soloists, Henry Jenkinson, Otta Jones, and Robert Brooks, are described in the Naxos CD booklet as a “very promising composer,” a superb pianist,” and a “fine poet” respectively. They may not be “angels,” but they are something rarer: highly skilled musicians.