The Skylark Vocal Ensemble’s previous recording, Seven Words From the Cross (2018), is an innovative, unusual collection of music for Good Friday that attracted considerable acclaim and two Grammy nominations. Skylark then moved in a completely different direction, experimenting with a collaborative ‘choral story concert’ idea that culminated in the genre-defying work Once Upon a Time.

This ambitious concept takes two fairy tales – Snow White and The Little Mermaid – narrating them in short sections interspersed with equally short, carefully chosen choral works. Holding all this together are the quite extraordinary incidental interludes by composer and conductor Benedict Sheehan, which weave these disparate components into a seamless, integrated musical and narrative experience.

Sarah Walker, a children’s librarian whose background in performance includes Appalachian folk storytelling and medieval plays, infuses these familiar tales with drama, sensitivity and excitement. The many choral works they rub shoulders with include Francis Poulenc’s Un Soir de Neige and Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs, as well as lesser known works by Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963) and two stunning Estonian songs by Veljo Tormis (1930-2017).

Largely selected from relatively recent Northern European traditions by Artistic Director Matthew Guard, they share an otherworldly quality and a preoccupation with nature and landscape well-suited to these dark, violent and not particularly childish tales. “My hope”, says Guard, “is that you might suspend disbelief and listen to the stories as if you were hearing them for the first time, and that you might find that the music speaks more deeply to you than you imagined it would.”

One striking example of exactly this is I-i-o hi-ho, a traditional Scandinavian kulning song used to call livestock down from the mountains. In an arrangement by Swedish composer Erland van Koch (1910-2009), soprano Alissa Ruth Suver and Skylark give a performance so ethereal that the hairs on your neck will stand on end. Its placement in the narrative, just as the Little Mermaid agrees to sacrifice her most precious attribute in order to become human, is almost unbearably poignant.

The glorious acoustics of the neo-Gothic Church of the Redeemer in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts lend an additional layer of magical wonder to this unusual, very impressive recording.

Title: Once Upon A Time
Music by: Vaughan Williams, Sheehan, Poulenc et al.
Performers: Skylark Vocal Ensemble, Sarah Walker nar
Label: Self-released by Skylark