American ensemble Cantus recorded The Covid-19 Sessions back in March 2020 on their home territory in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the time, Cantus were facing a year of cancelled concerts. The future was so dire, they believed that the recordings would be the last time they would perform together.
I failed to listen to their album when it released in August 2020. The ‘Covid-19 Sessions’ title may have discouraged me from picking the album up. Thankfully, I rediscovered it at the beginning of 2022 while scrolling through past Signum releases.
Cantus’s stunning version of Sibelius’s Finlandia, was the hook which drew me to listen to the whole album.
The Finlandia hymn has been performed and also arranged by various artists from the classical and pop world throughout the ages. In 1900, when Sibelius wrote it, it was a tribute to his beloved Finland and he had to change its name to escape Tsarist censors (Finland was under increasing Russian control)
Cantus’s version is simply a hymn to brotherhood and peace: ‘This is my song, O God of all nations/ A song of peace for lands afar and mine.’
Finlandia has been sung by many choirs and the effect is always rousing. Performed by Cantus, an intimate ensemble, the song takes on new meaning. ‘We are here for you.’ the singers seem to express in their warm, dulcet tones. ‘You are not alone.’ Having performed Finlandia for many years, Cantus knows the power of the work, but it is during lockdown that it took on a particular significance to all those who felt isolated and forgotten about.
Equally moving on the album, is the poignant Steal Away, a spiritual arranged by Stacey V. Gibbs. It puts the fine tenor, baritone and bass parts on display and all meld into exquisite harmonies by the end, signifying hope of escape from bondage for the slaves.
What is so noticeable about this album is the variety of songs on offer. They draw on different cultures, genres and musical eras ranging from the Renaissance to the present day.
Hugo Alfvén’s ‘Gryning Vid Havet’ dedicated to the sea, is sung in Swedish. Beautifully calm, the tenor part enchants and the ensemble voices swell and meld to a dramatic close.
It was pleasing to see several female composers in the song list – Hildegard von Bingen for instance. Composing during the 12th century, she must have been a rare bird.
The themes of imprisonment, freedom, escape and exploration emerge from this lockdown recording. The section of songs relating to space impressed, notably Beyond, with the ensemble vocally projecting the tenor into the firmament. Meanwhile Melissa Dunphy’s libretto was imaginative in Its Strange About Stars: ‘It’s strange about stars… You have to be still when they look at you/They push your song inside of you with their song.
Some songs had me singing along! Wanting Memories by Ysaÿe M.Barnwell for instance: ‘I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me/To see the beauty in the world through my eyes’. Apparently it’s a favourite with audiences when Cantus tours!
With nineteen different works on the album, there is a wealth of material to capture your imagination and lighten your mood.
Billy Joel’s Lullaby (Goodnight my Angel) wraps up the album. Magnificently sung. I have been humming it ever since. Would love to see this ensemble on the London stage.