HomeRecording Review: amarcord's "Coming Home for Christmas"

Evan Feist's picture

amarcord, of Leipzig, Germany was amalgamated in 1992 by former members of the St. Thomas Boys Choir.  They were between 9 and 15 years old when they met, singing in the prestigious choir once led by Johannes Sebastian Bach himself. The all-male quintet is composed of tenors Wolfram Lattke and Martin Lattke, baritone Frank Ozimek and basses Daniel Knauft and Holger Krause.
 
Singers.com put it well saying that amacord’s new album Coming Home for Christmas takes you “from Finland to Nigeria, from Trinidad & Tobago to Poland - sometimes jazzy, sometimes reflective and moving, but always guided by the longing for coming home for Christmas.”
 
I’d like to state that I am Jewish and have not heard these tunes every year since the beginning of time.  The yuletide emotional impact and nostalgia might be a little lost on me, but that might make it easier to elicit an unbiased review.
 
I've not heard this group before and upon the first few bars of the first track, I feel as if greeted by a warm, old friend.  The energy alone on the Finnish Juoske, Porosein! lifted my spirits and drew my attention.  The recording quality and production value is stellar and cannot be touched.  Everything is crisp and clean [dare I say, “immaculate”].  I do admit that I’ve been spoiled by modern harmony, so the strict diatonicness of the bulk of this traditional leaves me wanting a bit more in the harmonic department.  The Phi [mathematical balancing point 61.8% into the piece] features a lush mix of 7ths and 9ths [upper harmonic extensions] in a wonderfully lavish walkdown that turns this mixture into a solution.  The arrangement, by Mia Makaroff, is beautifully structured and opens the album very nicely.  The intricate parts of this piece function independently to reach a common goal until about two-thirds in where it all meshes together into one fluid gesture. 
 
After the first track, So veil Heimlichkeit, from Germany, [composed by Lotte Schuffenhauer and arranged by Christoph J. Göbel] was a unexpected and enjoyable surprise.  This jazz tune features a walking bass line [with slight processing and a snappy high hat], a wonderful trumpet, bass, and Louie Armstrong-esque solos.  I love this kind of jazz voicing; besides the rhythm section, the group sticks together in a block formation very much like the big band horn sections they’re paying homage to.
 
The next track is Felix Bernard’s familiar American favorite Winter Wonderland.  The head of this tune is not bad, just a little predictable coming from veteran composer/arranger Alex L’Estrange.  You can hear L’Estrange and his wife Joanna Forbes’ work with the Swingle Singers [if you watch GLEE] each week.  The song is presented in the classic conservative barbershop style but then switches gears.  The second verse morphs into a homogenous madrigal with a light swing feel, which is simply splendid!  The arrangement is light with elegantly extended harmony; everyone seems to know their place in and out of the whole, which makes me relax and soak it in without concern.
 
Emmy Köhler’s Nu tändas tusen juleljus is what I’d call a real Christmas Carol.  I've never heard it before, but the gentle, sweetly moving block chords suggest a peaceful night with loved ones that actually makes my head swim a bit.  The Swedish song was arranged by Joel Nilson of the award-winning group Vocado and it flows in such a manner that no matter how many times I listen and analyze it, I seem to only comment on the feel of the song.  I’ll no longer fight this and recommend you take a listen for yourself, as it's the only way to truly understand the beauty that is: amarcord.
 
The next tune is a traditional French Christmas song, but Dr. Matthias E. Becker’s arrangement of Noël Nouvelet performed here strikes me as a hipper Morten Lauridsen piece.   Although the piece is in 6/8 time, it feels like 5/4 which makes me think of Dave Brubeck with its switch from rubato [expressively out of time] to rhythmic exercises in meter and accents.  The backgrounds are gorgeously composed and voiced even prettier, which somehow leaves room for the canon to sit gently on top.
 
The Nigerian Betelehemu, also arranged by L’Estrange, starts off with amarcord way in the distance accompanied by tribal drums, crickets, and birds.  As the volume fader comes up, I feel as if amarcord’s processional is inching towards me.  The repeated pedal bass keeps me feeling grounded as the tenors soar off and swirl around my head. 
 
Jezus malusienki, from Poland, is way more my speed with its close harmony with accented dissonance.  This is really a madrigal at heart, but by the hand of Matthias Zeller, its cascading intro and transitions bubble over like a brilliant glowing waterfall of colors.  It’s been suggested that this piece is a bit overproduced and could have benefited from a more “live” sound.  Personally, I’m all about this idea and it’s usually the direction I tend to lean regarding modern a cappella.  For this particular song, I think recording engineer Christopher Tarnow and mix engineer Bill Hare did a great job and my only thought would be that a larger room sound with more reflection and reverb could have added to the song’s depth and warmth.
 
Stille Nacht is gorgeous.  Franz Gruber’s Austrian standard is treated with understatedly simple bass pedal tones and very traditional harmony.  Straight up, it’s nice to listen to. I really enjoyed and appreciated the key change with its subsequent crunchy chords and impeccable voice leading. I’ve officially become a Matthias Zeller fan.  There’s a surprise at every turn and you feel as if you’re whirling around each corner with them.  amarcord is a great tour guide and they know and communicate their landscapes with ease and expertise.
 
The next track, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, is your customary English Christmas tune.  I cannot stress enough how perfect their voices are individually and how divine they sound together.  Their treatment of lyrics seem to paint the song, transcending verbal expression.   I would have liked a little less of the high tenor as he pierces the mix a little bit.  Naomi Crellin of the Australian group The Idea of North, arranged this tune in what I assume is standard hymn practice with a few tonal curveballs thrown in.  I really love when songs present a chorus that reinvents the wheel with each iteration. Plus, it ends with an add 9 chord, the cotton candy of chords.
 
I apologize that I cannot help but say that Fum, Fum, Fum is Fun, Fun, Fun.  The motivic baseline reminds me of old Take 6 and/or new Sonos.  I really love how they use the fricative of the ‘f’ in “fum” percussively within the syncopated twist.  The playful call and response motion arranger Matthais Becker brought to the B section of this Catalonian carol works really well and compliments the flowing close-voiced block harmony featured in most of the song.  It’s very hard to talk about their overall aesthetic because it’s constantly changing, proving how versatile, artistic, and astute this whole operation is.
 
This next French tune, Il est né le divin enfant, opens as if George Gershwin himself wrote it.  I have a definite sweet tooth when it comes to music.  Nonfunctional harmony [cool notes for the sake of cool notes] has to be one of my favorite musical candies and this tune is chock full of it, thanks to Juan Miguel Verduo Garcia.  Rhythmically, it’s a different story.  The harmony is winning and as always, the timbre is wonderful; it’s just a little stiff for me.  The swing feel is a little robotic but the whistled Frere Jacques that leads into bells tones makes me to want to eat the last 30 seconds of this piece with a spoon.  You could say that it’s something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue.  It reminds me of the 2nd half of Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo a la Turk” where he keeps switching between time signatures. 
 
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, for me, is one of those songs that goes exactly where you want it and fulfills your tonal expectations.  amarcord found a way to both satisfy those expectations [with their dynamics, gorgeously clean voicing leading, and perfect phrasing] while also employing the “less is more” philosophy.  Like a good Hitchcock film, amarcord’s subtle harmonic and stylistic gestures imply an idea, without ever showing us their hand.  As a listener, this engages me and really turns me on to their sheer great singing.  The range and resonance of this group baffles me. This might be one of the most tender and beautifully colored versions of this song I’ve ever heard, thank you Tobias Forster!  After about the first 2 minutes we go into what I know Forster for, Latin American transformations.  It doesn’t completely lose me [although I would’ve went Brazillian with it], I just REALLY loved the initial sections. 
 
Summer Sleeps kicks this album up a notch, going from great human singing into various supporting instrument-like sounds.  I don’t think they’re imitating instruments, but are exploring other vocal timbres as support instead of their usual block choral sound.  Juan Miguel Verduo Garcia wrote and arranged this one and it’s marvelous.  It starts out with some vocally oscillated pads [long tones] and then delivers a melodic contour that can twist and turn you into tears.  It’s gentle rubato and sweet tonality makes me want to lobby Garcia to pitch it to Imogen Heap.
 
John Jacob Niles’ I Wonder as I Wander hits me as a medieval motet, with the lead tenor piercing and soaring over the group.  The tune starts with the most dulcet of bell tones with gently attacked “D’s” that leave a crisp “high hat sounding” artifact as each note is struck.  What follows can only be described as a bouncy rubato lead over a few drones.  Honestly, I like the transitions between verses more than the tune itself.  I’m not sure who said that music exists in the transitions [Stravinsky?], but it certainly rings true here.  As we get deeper into the piece, the harmony evolves and evokes, for me, a journey across various kinds of water.  Every now and then we get the sweet amarcord blocks of sound we’ve become accustomed to.  They make us miss the sense of 5 guys moving as one by simply taking it away for a bit.  This is an effective tool that I discuss with my students all the time.  It’s all about setting up expectations and then fulfilling and/or denying them.  In this case, the best way to make us want something is to briefly take it away, nice work gentlemen.
 
Parang Christmas Chutney is not like the other tracks on this record.  Alex L’Estrange’s setting of Marcia Miranda and Scrunter’s Trinidadian tune is more playful and features more diverse sounds than the other tracks.  I could describe them to you, but it’s better to keep you guessing until you hear it.  Given the diverse world-tour concept of this album, I’m not sure that this song DOESN’T fit, but if doing a Caribbean song so aesthetically far from the rest of the album, shouldn’t there also be an Asian and/or South American tune instead of 3 American ones?
 
The record closes with a reprise of So viel Heimlichkeit labeled as the Zuckerbaecker Remix.  Initially I expected a new/different arrangement of the piece, but since it’s listed as a “remix”, I guess I don’t mind.  The remix features a human bass backed by congas, an acoustic drum set, and some other instrumental surprises [and yes, one of them IS an accordion!]  Usually, I’m not thrilled about this kind of integration.  I tend to like my a cappella segregated.  But, I must say that amarcord has made a believer out of me as I LOVE this tune.  What a strong way to close the record.
 
Every section seems to morph into a different feel making it impossible to paint an entire song with one brush. Even having no idea what’s being said half the time, I’m thrilled to be writing this review, as it literally becomes my job to keep listening to this record.  We’re touring the world and amarcord’s virtuosic voices are that common thread we keeping coming home to.
 
In his RARB review, Nick Anderson-Frye said, “Not only is their group sound polished and precise, each individual voice is compelling and beautiful in its own right. I also admire amarcord's willingness to take vocal risks, expanding its sonic palate to include different tonal characteristics. Though ostensibly a "classical" vocal group, amarcord show a distinctly experimental side to its singing.”  As Nick said, they are a predominantly “classical” group and that sound [specifically in the high tenor range] sometimes colors and therefore supersedes both the mix and the arrangement. 

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About the author:
Evan Feist has been composing, arranging, writing, teaching, managing, and singing a cappella music and vocal percussion for over 10 years.   He has his Bachelor’s Degree in Studio Composition and Arts Management from the SUNY Purchase's Conservatory of Music and is currently finishing his 2nd Master' Degree in Music Education at Columbia University, Teachers College.  He has created and managed many successful groups, such as the A Cappella Innovations’ honored Choral Pleasure, SUNY Purchase Soul Voices, and the Plainview-Old Bethpage JFK Honors Choir and has performed with these groups in venues such as Lincoln Centre, The Bitter End, and Carnegie Hall.  Evan is the founder and president of Oven Feast Productions, and the general manager of Stacks of Wax Records, currently based in NYC, Woodstock, and Westchester, NY. During business hours, when not producing and composing, he teaches voice, piano, vocal percussion, music production & business.  Evan is currently available for workshops and clinics specializing in writing/arranging for a cappella groups, vocal percussion, group and solo improvisation as well as managing a sustainable group.  Please feel free to contact him for help and guidance for all your musical endeavors. bit.ly/evanfeist_acarrangments bit.ly/evanfeist_dropbox