There's something to be said for a trained voice with an expert vibrato... but sometimes it seems that vibrato is used as a thick coat of paint to cover up a vocalist's chips and cracks. And when it comes to certain choral compositions, it's my opinion that vibrato thoroughly detracts from the purity of the music. Notice I said "certain" works. Baroque anthems and oratorios for large choirs, classical masses and romantic pieces for small choirs? Let's wobble our hearts out, singers. But when it comes to the tight, sometimes dissonant harmonies of early music - and some modern music - there's nothing for it but a pure, focused, straight tone.
On their latest CD, the four men of New York Polyphony use that straight tone to remarkable effect.
It allows you to hear the single line of a chant as each note echoes in the hall and plays against its neighbors, creating a series of ephemeral duets and trios. Listen for the floating harmonies in the setting of Flos Regalis, written for NY Polyphony by Andrew Smith. The phantom harmony of the opening chant splits into actual multi-part singing. There, and in several other tracks, the straight tone carries polyphonic harmonies as they are pulled and stretched, and builds a sturdy fabric of sound that you can sink into. It feels and sounds like tremendous, supple sheets of velveted color that can easily bear your weight.
The 16th-century composer Thomas Tallis authored several of the most striking works on the CD. He created a fluid interchange between chant and polyphony in pieces like Audivi Vocem, and in others, his 4-part harmonies established the form of what we know as "the hymn." They also give the trained voices in NY Polyphony a chance to finally work their expert vibrato in the subtlest, most artful way.
New York Polyphony is countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Geoffrey Silver, baritone Scott Dispensa and bass Craig Phillips. They recorded this CD in one of the world's largest churches: the expansive Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The CD draws its name from another New York landmark, a 1920s apartment complex on the East Side of Manhattan. The title also refers to the English composers who were writing during the House of Tudor reign (1485 - 1603). The Tudor City CD is full of ethereal, other-worldly music, as sung by angels. Big, burly angels.