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REVIEW: 'Survivors', a new CD by Anthony Ritchie

Survivors – Anthony Ritchie
Aquarius Choir, dir. Marc Michael de Smet
Atoll ACD119

Reviewed for NZCF eBreve by Peter Watts

Anthony Ritchie is one of New Zealand’s most respected composers, with his works regularly performed in NZ, so it is a great pleasure to discover from this new Atoll recording that his music has been taken up by the distinguished Belgian Aquarius Choir under Marc Michael de Smet. Works on the recording include pieces familiar to many NZ choirs, such as his 1991 setting of Cilla McQueen’s Timepiece, which has been heard frequently at Big Sing competitions around NZ, and newer works written especially for the Aquarius Choir in 2016 and 2017: Ellen’s Vigil and The Survivor.

Though The Survivor is the title of one specific work based on a poem by Primo Levi, describing his experiences as a survivor of Auschwitz, all the works in some way talk about surviving: Guantanamo Bay, World War I, the Wahine disaster, widowhood. Even the amusing Cilla McQueen poem has a woman surviving her day of household chores – or perhaps she doesn’t survive it?

The Aquarius Choir first met Ritchie’s music in 2011 and were so taken with it that they commissioned new works and planned this recording project.

The thought-provoking texts are always well to the fore in Ritchie’s clear and expressive musical lines and textures. The Guantanamo set Salaam provides the substantial ‘meat’ of the recording. Ritchie certainly knows how to create tension, climax and release and the Aquarius choir rises to the challenge well, negotiating with skill and assured tone the challenging harmonies of Is it true, the anger of Over the Sea, the mesmerizing wave patterns in Ode to the Sea and the startling dissonant climax of Even if the Pain.

Although the recording features the music of a single composer, there is plenty of variety, from the quirky humour of Timepiece to the overwhelming sadness of Ellen’s Vigil, and from the nod to the Spiritual in Song of Hope to the shifting waves of This sea we cross over.

At times the diction of the Aquarius Choir is not clear enough for full communication and there are moments of unsteady ensemble. These aspects become more obvious when comparing Widow’s Songs with the 2008 recording of the same work by Voices NZ, but over all this is a convincing recording which provides a valuable sample of Ritchie’s choral compositions and should inspire choral directors to explore more of this fine composer’s music.

Marc Michael de Smet’s assessment of the composer bears repetition. “Anthony Ritchie is not the type of composer to be losing himself in intellectual highbrow experiments. His art couldn’t be clearer and more effective. He is sincere, and you can rely on him. So the man, so the music.”

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