“Once Upon a Time” becomes a new “happily ever after”

The Skylark vocal ensemble anchors a compelling and fresh take on familiar tales


If you thought you were familiar with “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” or “The Little Mermaid,” take a listen to a stunning recent release by the vocal ensemble Skylark. Director Matthew Guard would be quick to point out that the power of this release cannot be credited to his group alone — after all, there is the nuanced narration from noted story teller Sarah Walker. The final and crucial element of this synergistic project comes from the interpolation of existing choral works, and a new “Story Score” from Benedict Sheehan.

The recipient of a Grammy nomination a few years ago, Guard was not about to rest on that laurel, and is constantly looking for new modes of expression for his incredibly versatile choir. Skylark bass-baritone Peter Walker is the husband of Sarah Walker, and Guard began to experiment with incorporating her gifts into a performance of disparate choral works. After a number of concerts that resulted in an ever-growing excitement from performers and audiences alike, the current CD (available from Naxos and pictured above) was produced.

The first tale is the “Snow White” from the Brothers Grimm, but as Guard points out in his booklet notes, if you think you know either of these stories from Disney movies (or from traditional children’s books),  you’re in for a surprise or two. But the added dimension is Guard’s ability to intersperse existing choral music that heightens and moves the story along. In “Snow White” we are treated to numbers from Vaughan Williams, Poulenc and Rautavaara, among others. It would be enough to hear Skylark perform these numbers in any context; their collective balance, blend, dynamic range and expressiveness may be equaled, but scarcely if ever bettered. Guard admits that there may be an argument that a work such as the selections from Poulenc’s “Un soir de neige” may seem cheapened by this usage; the works were written in 1944, among the darkest days of World War II. Apology accepted; this recording hopefully brings these works to a wider audience, and some might argue that Poulenc might be pleased to see that his work has a new expressive context.

In both tales, Sheehan’s “Story Score” is a marvel in the way it illuminates the action and seems to connect so seamlessly with the existing choral works on either side. Walker’s narration is the epitome of shading and light, never histrionic or going in for obvious effect. Certainly hearing her “unaccompanied” would be a treat as well, but she sounds quite at home in this dynamic.

The “Snow White” tale seems to be the one that has a more consistent arc from start to finish; “The Little Mermaid” (the original from Hans Christian Andersen) seems, near the beginning and a little later on, to suffer (in relative terms) from choral numbers that are lengthier and interrupt the flow. Again we have Vaughan Williams represented, along with Bernstein, Morton Lauridsen, and lesser lights such as Jaakko Mäntyjärvi. But the final ten minutes or so of “Mermaid” are absolutely transcendental, musically and emotionally.

I received the review copy over a month or so ago, so it goes without saying that the timing of the release with the current situation in the world was particularly un-fortuitous; I urge my readers to share this review….and purchase the CD for yourselves; if we ever needed a real sense of “once upon a time” and “happily ever after,” this is it. Skylark and friends, at the very least, will take you there for an hour or so.

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