A Walk with Ivor Gurney

Dame Sarah Connolly; Simon Callow; Tenebrae; Aurora Orchestra; Nigel Short Signum Classics SIGCD557

I admit to approaching this double CD with mixed feelings. I heard Sarah Connolly’s compelling performance of By a Bierside on Radio 3 and was hooked. When I unwrapped the CDs themselves I became slightly dubious about the rationale behind the disc. My doubts disappeared largely as I listened but they are worth rehearsing, if only to accentuate along the way what I think are some very positive attributes of this project.

Ivor Gurney has now become a significant figure in the English cultural tradition but for as many reasons are he has followers. For some he is an icon of World War 1, amongst many other cultural figures, but distinctive because of the way in which the impact of war on Gurney lasted for so many years after (and I’m avoiding discussion here regarding pre-war signs of mental ill health). For others he is a poetic figure, gradually gaining significance as more and more of his writing is published. For many reading this review, he is a musical figure of great interest, with more and more music becoming available and performed. This disc illustrates that point in providing another recording of the long-unperformed anthem, Since I believe in God the Father Almighty to set alongside that by The Sixteen (on their Poetry in Music CD on CORO) and that by Gloucester Cathedral Choir (on PRIORY). The danger is that we make Gurney into what we want him to be or judge him by other’s standards. We have to be realistic in admitting that even Gurney’s friends were susceptible to this. Although, when deciding which of Gurney’s manuscripts were worth preserving in published form, Finzi showed a clear awareness of the danger of pre-judging Gurney’s quality in a letter to Marion Scott in 1937: ‘The sorting has been even more difficult than I expected, chiefly because there is comparatively little that one can be really sure is bad. Even the late 1925 asylum songs…have a curious coherence about them somewhere’.

A similar danger lurks when placing Gurney in the context of his musical friends and known influences. In the case of this CD, this means Vaughan Williams, Howells and, as an orchestrator, Finzi. The danger is that we read in connections that we want to find. The CD surrounds three of Gurney’s songs, powerfully sung by Sarah Connolly, and the anthem, with various orchestral and choral works by Vaughan Williams and Howells. Some connections are obvious. The first disc begins with Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallisand Philip Lancaster’s CD notes recount the impact the first performance of the work had on Gurney and Howells. On the second disc, Vaughan Williams’ Oxford Elegy,which sets Matthew Arnold’s poem remembering the lost but seemingly still present Scholar Gipsy, is posited as a reflection of Vaughan Williams’ regret for those lost in war; by the time of writing (1947), this meant two world wars. This was a new idea to me (Philip Lancaster quotes Michael Kennedy as the source, so it deserves careful consideration). It seems hard to weld a mid-nineteenth century poem onto the traumas of the twentieth century in such an obvious connection, and one where the ‘Oxford’ or scholar element is absent. Yet I confess that, listening to the performance, the always moving choral passage ‘Why faintest thou’ which comes very near the end of the work, took on an even greater poignancy in this suggested context. I have to be honest, however and say that I feel the ‘connection’ between Gurney and Vaughan Williams begins to lose impetus as one reaches the end of the second CD. Even the admirable CD notes falter in drawing any real connection between Gurney and the last two Vaughan Williams pieces, Valiant for Truth and Lord thou hast been our refuge.

The raison d’être for the CD’s title lies with the entirely original view of Gurney that Judith Bingham presents in her work of the same name. As so often with this composer the view is unexpected and captivating. Judith Bingham takes texts from Gurney’s poetry as fragments, some substantial, and weaves them around two epitaphs for Roman soldiers found in Gloucestershire. The resonances between old and contemporary are common in late nineteenth and early twentieth century poetry (Philip Lancaster points to Housman) and are to be found in Gurney’s own poems, such as Brown earth Look. Here, Gurney describes the Romans as ‘quiet comrades and ponderers’. Judith Bingham’s handling is simple in structure (not harmonically!) but assured and highly effective. The powerful rendition of the solo mezzo part by Sarah Connolly places Gurney’s texts, often about landscape, centre stage.These are sung mostly against wordless soprano and alto chord-clusters or undulating chords as a backdrop. The Roman epitaphs are presented by the tenor and bass voices, with a particularly memorable use of low basses, and skilful transitions between the two groups. This use of texture to structure the work leads to the climax where all three ‘groups’ join together. The solo vocal line is demanding, angular at times but in a lyrical context and demands, and receives, careful colouring to reflect Gurney’s words. The choral harmonies are exceptionally well judged and chosen. They are dissonant at times but always lean, with little unnecessary doubling, as far as the ear can tell.
Two CDs with a mixture of genres are challenging to sustain in terms of performance as well as thematically. The performances are of high quality, enabling the individual listener to decide what he or she enjoys most on the grounds of stylistic approach rather than because any tracks are ‘better’ than others. Though I admit I will return to Sarah Connolly again and again! One of the distinctive aspects of the discs is hearing a woman’s voice in repertoire so much more usually associated with male voices. This has been done before, by Janet Baker and Susan Bickley, to name but two singers, and particularly effective here is the mezzo timbre against the orchestrations by Howells and Finzi. There is also the element, pertinent to the earlier discussion, that this removes the listener from any concept of Gurney as ‘that poor man’. The female voice transcends Gurney’s biographical details, which can so easily stand in the way of appreciating him purely as a creative spirit.

The orchestral playing by the Aurora Orchestra is assured and particularly effective in An Oxford Elegy, making this recording a welcome champion for an underperformed piece. Although not all groups can afford to hire Simon Callow as the clear and intelligent narrator. The Vaughan WilliamsFantasia is hard to record afresh because there are myriad competitors. There’s nothing to fault but I would have enjoyed more flexibility in places, perhaps less driven tempi, and more of the generous acoustic which appears on track two for the Howells anthem. Tenebrae is a group which upholds the highest standards. For my ears they are perfect for the precision in ensemble and tuning demanded by the triadic sections and sudden modulations ofVaughan Williams’Valiant for Truth, which is clear and full of impact. This makes them ideal also for An Oxford Elegy which is demanding in similar ways and by no means a gentle pastoral amble. Their performance of Since I believe in God the Father Almightymerges the sounds of the two four-part choirs to achieve the full impact of Gurney’s shifting harmonies as the two groups interweave: in this respect they highlight Gurney’s textural shifts more effectively than The Sixteen. Their performance of Howells’ Like as the hart is very sustained (within a dangerously slow tempo) and contains a warmth this listener has sometimes found lacking in other recordings by the group.

So, two discs with much to enjoy and definitely recommended. What you feel at the end of your walk with Gurney will very much depend on your personal response to an interesting though by no means clear-cut concept.

Martin Bussey

John Joubert (b.1927) Piano Concerto Op.25 (1958); Symphony No.3 Op.178 (2014-17) on themes from the opera ‘Jane Eyre’

Martin Jones; BBC National Orchestra of Wales; William BoughtonLyrita SRCD367

Piano Concerto

The role of the concerto in the twentieth century, once the concept of virtuosity had become outplayed, which one might date from the death of Rachmaninov in the 1940s, is an interesting one. By this stagethe virtuosity of performers was something assumed rather than being something that was necessarily the primary focus of a barnstorming musical work. Musical and structural integrity seem to have become much more significant, particularly to British composers; and one might date this a lot further back, to Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Joubert’s Piano Concerto certainly exhibits these characteristics in the most positive manner, possessed of a musical coherence that has stood the test of time well. In this respect the work sits alongside concertos of contemporaries such as William Mathias and, in some respects, Finzi’s concertante works. Newcomers to Joubert’s Piano Concerto will find it sits well as a follow-on from the Naxos disc of British Piano Concertos which includes works by Alec Rowleyan d others.

This Lyrita disc, with the solo part played with great clarity by Martin Jones, is a welcome opportunity to hear a well-paced piece where musical structure plots an emotional path which is stimulating and rewarding. In this respect, the work exemplifies Joubert’s aim as quoted in the sleeve notes: “communication is important to me. I want to be understood, enjoyed and used. I do not want to live in the enclosed and artificial world of “Contemporary Music”’. These thoughts may resonate with enthusiasts for Finzi’s music also.

The first movement is characterized by rhythmic insistence throughout, often in the form of repeated note figures, particularly a four-note motif whose rhythm informs most ideas in the movement. This well-knit thematic approach gives continuity and reassurance to anyone coming to the work for the first time. The structure of the movement essentially leads, emotionally, to a passage reminiscent of Rachmaninov which occurs around a third of the way through and recurs later. Both passages form effective climaxes in what is a well-proportioned structure which owes much to traditional sonata forms.

The second movement is characterized by effective chamber music scoring at the start, particularly attractive in its use of woodwind, especially the bassoon. The varied orchestral palette of colours is astrength of the work as a whole, providing much variety and interest. This second movement has a more philosophical, perhaps reflective feel after the driven first movement. Here, the climax comes midway through the movement, forming the most dissonant section of the work so far. Joubert gives brass and horns their head before the more reflective style returns. The movement ends with a brief look back at the more dissonant writing before the tranquil opening returns.

The final, third movement opens with cadenza-like flourishes from the piano focused on rapid repeated notes and trills, although this is untypical of the work as a whole, which eschews virtuosity for its own sake. An allegro ensues, where repeated-note ideas take centre-stage again. Here they are played mainly as a backdrop to piano passage work, and the ideas are, perhaps, less incisive rhythmically than those in earlier movements. Perhaps also, some of the imitative and sequential writing is a little predictable. There are, however, some interesting combinations and workings out of ideas mid-movement and a build-up of effective dissonances akin to the middle of the second movement. This is followed by some interesting betrayal of metrical expectations in interchanges between soloist and orchestra: the listener is not always sure where the regular pulse of earlier movements has gone. This enables a sense of climax to be achieved before the ideas of the movement’s slow opening recur, this time leading to a more substantial cadenza. Would it be wrong to hear a touch of Addinsell’sWarsaw Concerto in some of the repeated chords? None the less welcome for that, if a fair comparison! The repetitive rhythmic ideas close the concerto with rigorous brass flourishes ensuring a bravura finish to an entertaining and enjoyable work. The performance is engaging, with a forward, clear recording; just the occasional lack of unanimity in upper strings in their highest register might have been addressed.

Symphony No 3

If the role of the concerto as a form in the late twentieth century was by no means cut and dried, the same can be said with equal certainty of the role of the symphony. Composers used and use the term freely to describe a wide variety of musical concepts or forms. The intention to realise extra-musical ideas in symphonic musical form was not new, of course. In fact, the prototype, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, makes a fascinating point of reference for Joubert’s Third Symphony, composed as it was in the same Romantic white heat as inspired Emily Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Those present at the concert performance of Joubert’s opera of the same name will recall the dramatic intensity of the composer’s setting and its easy lyricism within a modern idiom. This Symphony takes five orchestral interludes as its starting point, these discarded from the much longer version of the opera that Joubert pruned drastically for the concert performance. Taking pre-existing works out of their dramatic context to form an essentially abstract orchestral work is a bold move. Joubert’s essentially symphonic approach to writing his opera, where thematic ideas themselves and their development underpin the rationale for the opera’s structure, alongside obvious narrative sense, gives some coherence to the Symphony.

The first of the five movements has strong emotional intensity. Inevitably, in most English operas written post-1945 there are echoes of Britten’s Peter Grimes, particularly in the woodwind writing, and that is true here. This is no more of a criticism than saying one can hear echoes of Verdi in Puccini.Indeed, mention of Grimes inevitably brings focus on the idea of calling this a symphony rather than, say, FiveInterludes, given that these movements originally served a similar purpose to those of Britten’s Sea Interludes in that opera. Judgement on that aspect of the work has to wait until the end of the Symphony is reached. The combined lyricism and vivid orchestral colour in this opening, reflecting Jane’s experiences at LowoodSchool, create an unsettled mood. This is heightened in the opening of the second movement, with its bass clarinet which on first hearing reminded this listener that Mr Rochester refers to Jane at one point as anwicked fairy. Soon, however, the focus turns to a more vigorous mood with a prominent xylophone figure introducing tension which is picked up in the rhythmically insistent writing for full orchestra, a return to traits of the Piano Concerto. This xylophone idea proves a key linking motif throughout the symphony, reflecting as the CD booklet tells us, the character of the unseen Mrs Rochester, Bertha. Transitions of mood help to give these successive movements integrity, just as the role of the orchestral interludes in the opera from which the movements spring was to reflect foregoing, or pre-empt succeeding movements.

Thus the mood of the third movement reflects the urgency and uncertainty surrounding the interrupted marriage of Rochester and Jane in Thornfield Church.The fast music at the start gives way to more regular writing, but with insistent bass figures that sustain the initial energy. Some of the rhythmic ideas preceding the solo horn call are perhaps a little foursquare but rhythmic ingenuity returns in the second half of the movement, where one might regret that Joubert wasn’t taken up by the film industry, such is the sense of something dramatic happening. The climax to the movement re-introduces the xylophone idea in a compelling ending which also proves a significant moment in the structure of the Symphony as a whole.

The fourth movement reflects Jane’s stay with the Rivers family. As it opens one begins to feel a slightly episodic element in the structure of the movements, even though they are linked by recurring ideas sufficiently to give the Symphony coherence. Jane’s unsettled nature when staying with her distant cousins is well represented but, just as adaptors of the novel for television and film have found it hard to decide, and taken different views on, how to deal with this necessary but distracting episode, one longs to reach the climax of the symphony and of the story. The movement does distract the listener from this mood with a very effective piece of writing focused on two trumpets as the orchestra’ coherence appears to dissipate at the end of the movement.

The fifth movement opens with an introduction which clearly states that the denouement approaches. The xylophone lurks in the background and, indeed re-appears mid-movement, but it is overtaken by a forthright statement of the love of Rochester and Jane, complete with bells. Maybe a little simplistic harmonically as the culmination of the many interesting ideas contained in the previous movements?

And is it a symphony? The assertion of the CD sleeve notes that Joubert is ‘a master of long-term, symphonic planning’ is hyperbole that does the composer few favours in this context. Symphonically, the work is too episodic to justify that judgement, but it is a well-constructed piece, of integrity and considerable orchestral ingenuity. It also captures elements of the wonderful story that is Jane Eyre and the composer’s undoubted love for it, which he communicates for our enjoyment with passion. Which is, as he himself has stated (see above), his aim.

 

Martin Bussey

 

Celebrating English Song

Songs by Butterworth, Ireland, Venables, Vaughan Williams, Gurney, Quilter, Warlock, Moeran, Britten and Finzi.

Roderick Williams, baritone; Susie Allan, piano. SOMMCD 0177

The final concert in the Tardebigge series which gives its name to this disc was, fittingly, given by a singer and pianist who had contributed much to the concerts over many years. The roll of singers and pianists who performed at Tardebigge is illustrious, to say the least, but the singer on this disc was both a favourite of so many, and his approach so closely identified with the ideals of the series, that he was the logical choice to end many years of happy music making. The suggestion was made that the programme on that occasion should be committed to disc, and here it is.

The disc is a fine compilation of some of the most noteworthy English art songs,although those averse to melancholy, wistfulness or poignancy might wish to dip in and out as these moods tend to dominate the genre. Careful planning of the recital, however, means that any danger of an over-rich diet of suchfare is averted by strategic placing of more robust repertoire, such as Ireland’s Great Things or Gurney’s setting of Masefield’s Captain Stratton’s Fancy, together with the gentle humour of Venables’ Flying Crooked. Listening to the complete disc it is Gurney’s songs which stand out by virtue of their distinctive harmonic language. Ireland’s chromatic intensity is ideally suited to the genre, and in some ways is still underrated for its impact, for example in the poignant Housman setting In Boyhood and the variety of textures employed in the imaginative Youth’s Sweet Tribute. This setting of a Dante Gabriel Rossettisonnet handles this notoriously tricky poetic structure with aplomb. Ireland’s influence is clear in the music of Venables and a familial harmonic relationship can be heard in Moeran, Quilter and even Warlock. This contrasts well with Butterworth and theearly Vaughan Williams represented here, which look back more to the late nineteenth century. Yet it is Gurney’s harmonic world which seems totake us furthest into the emotional world of the poetry he sets, forexample in the shifting moods of BlackStitchel, each vividly presented. The inflections are melodic, harmonic and, crucially, structural, in terms of phrase lengths, which lengthen or contract according to mood. What Gurney achieves here is a fluidity which sets the music at the service of the poetry. In this, he shares a significant characteristic with Finzi, of course, although on this disc we do not hear Finzi setting Hardy, as was so frequently, and memorably, the case. What is often overlooked in considering Let us Garlands Bring is that Finzi is setting Shakespeare, albeit often, although not exclusively, Shakespeare writing song lyrics, such as ‘O Mistress Mine’. The challenges Shakespeare poses, not least in audience terms of familiarity with other composers’ settings, are met with exactitude by Finzi, particularly in the masterly ‘Fear no more’.

The performances are intimate, as befits the disc as a record of the Tardebigge experience. At times the recording might have opened out a little more frequently, as it does successfully for Captain Stratton, particularly with regard to the piano, which occasionally sounds a touch brittle. (It might have been good for the tuner to spend a little more time at the lower end of the piano as well, before The Vagabond, particularly.) Ensemble is tight and Susie Allan breathes with the singer but also takes the initiative when the music demands. Changes of mood are uniform between singer and pianist, and smaller-scale inflexions are seemingly effortless, including in the tortuous, if brief, white-knuckle ride for both performers that is Warlock’sJillian of Berry. The full, masterly rhythmic flexibility in these performances is only fully apparent when what is heard is compared with what is on the pages of the scores.
And the singer? It is instructive to hear this disc after Roderick Williams’recent performances as Billy Budd and Balstrode on the much bigger canvases of Britten operas. He remains for many the ultimate ‘English baritone’ voice, but comparison of this disc with operatic performances shows that this label has been earned, not won by virtue of belonging to any vocal ‘type’. Roderick Williams crafts each song, varying vocal timbre with finesse, and his range of colours is wide. Thus A Shropshire Lad has a lightness of tone to match the youthful age of the poetry’s subject, without darkening the vowel sounds. There is a seeming fragility in the sound (not the technique!) throughout the cycle, except when characterising the ‘wise man’ in the second song. This gives a much more meaningful context to ‘Is my team ploughing’ than performances where the vocal timbre is suddenly reduced just for that final song. There is similar restraint in Silent Noonwhich prevents the song from outstripping the perspective of what is an intimate, delicate poem. Elsewhere in the discgreater warmth of tone, and greater resonance is used, to equally good effect, particularly in Finzi, hinting at the weight of voice which the singer possesses, but uses sparingly in this genre. This is a singer who thinks carefully about the timbre he wants for different vowel sounds in different contexts. For example, endings of English words which can be tricky when set to music which elongates the vowel, such as ‘ness’, are carefully and always sensitively sung, and with varied colour. All the decisions which Roderick Williams makes are at the service of the text and the music. And, finally, to that seemingly effortless breath control: go no further than to the third song of A Shropshire Lad to hear how technique can be at the service of a song. The tempo is fluid but also has poise and is seemingly unhurried. Much of this is achievable because the singer can run two phrases together without seeming about to falter. For example, when the final verse is reached the singer manages ‘With downward eye and gazes sad, Stands amid the glancing showers’ in a single breath. In this song many singers breathe between every line of text, creating a hiatus in the flow of Butterworth’s irregular metre, and consequent bumps in the song’s path. Such is this singer’s technique that we barely notice him breathe and the music in this song, as with so many others on the disc, flows effortlessly and intelligently.

 

Martin Bussey

Finzi, Bax and Ireland Choral Music

Hyperion CDA68167
The Choir of Westminster Abbey; Daniel Cook, organ; James O’Donnell, conductor

Finzi: My lovely one; God is gone up; Welcome sweet and sacred feast; Let us now praise famous men; Lo, the full, final sacrifice; Magnificat.

Bax: I sing of a maiden that is makeless; This worldes joie.

Ireland: Greater love hath no man; Ex ore innocentium; Te Deum in F.

Several elements are striking in this very welcome recording which includes several of Finzi’s most significant choral works, and his most significant writing for the Anglican church. Most striking is the sheer musicality of the performances. Atmosphere, intensity and often musical exuberance are hallmarks of the disc. This is attributable in no small measure to James O’Donnell’s masterly control of structure, even in the shortest of pieces. These are sung, not as ‘mere’ service anthems from the repertoire, but with each work treated with musical integrity, shaped and phrased compellingly. This benefits several of the shorter, less familiar Finzi works in particular. Let us now praise famous men is a work whose composition for men’s voices and organ makes it less regularly heard than most of Finzi’s choral output. It is good to hear such a well-crafted performance. The starting point for all performances is the text, as treated by the composer, and the disc contains a fine array of texts, particularly in the Finzi pieces. The choir is simply one of the best around today and puts its skill fully at the service of the music. This bears greater scrutiny. In the case of several works on the disc, such as Finzi’s Magnifcat and the Bax pieces, the original singers envisaged for the top line were female, and were so in early performances. Hearing them sung by boys’ voices presents a different context. The boys rise to the challenges posed brilliantly, both in terms of musicality and technique. Their tone is robust but shows sensitivity. Above all, their voices give clarity to some highly complex textures without reducing the sound to the straightjacketed tone which is currently the fashion in some professional chamber choirs. The sound then comes fully into its own in works such as Lo, the full, final sacrifice, written for the boys’ choir of that immense well of artistic patronage, St Matthew’s Northampton, when under the care of Walter Hussey. The frequent passages in thirds which Finzi often writes for top lines have particular clarity in this recording and the boys negotiate Finzi’s upwardly leaping melodic lines effortlessly. Turning to the adult voices, another key strength of this recording is revealed. Westminster Abbey boasts immeasurable riches in the ‘back rows’, made up of singers who are foremost in their field as choral singers, often members of the many other professional groups in London. This cannot be underrated for its impact (listen, for example, to the solo bass in Ireland’s Greater Love). Exposed lines for, say tenors or basses, are always rich in sound, effortless,and fluently and instinctively phrased. (There is perhaps one moment of alto over-exuberance mid-Magnificat, but that can be forgiven). The high-quality singing of these voices also has impact on the sound of chordal passages. These benefit from a richness in the lower parts, including the altos, that only well-controlled mature voices can bring, creating balanced but highly resonant singing, particularly notable in the chromatic chordal challenges of Bax’s very fine I sing of a maiden. The imitative entries towards the end of this piece show all vocal parts off to their very best. The slow build-up of ‘All we shall die’ in This worldes joie benefits particularly from the even quality throughout all parts, as well as impressively sustained long phrases. One can only regret slightly the absence of Bax’s Mater orafilium from the disc as it would have been good to hear this fine choir in that most demanding example of twentieth-century English choral writing. Atmosphere is to the fore throughout the disc, aided probably by the fact that most can picture the surroundings in which the recording was made; and devoid of tourists! A key element of creating the atmosphere is the sound of the Abbey organ, superbly played by Daniel Cook. Placing Finzi’s My lovely one at the head of the disc creates an attractive sense of the vast spaces of the Abbey in its subdued mood. The organ introduction to God is gone up makes a dynamic contrast. It might initially lead the listener to look round for a royal procession, but the fulsome brass fanfares on this organ are entirely at one with the performance here. There is a majesty in this version of Finzi’s Ascension anthem which entirely suits the text and which can too often be missing in other performances. Perhaps one of the things that Finzi might have appreciated in the performances on this disc is the primacy of the text, to which the ear is directed time and again. Sometimes the resonant acoustic makes demands in terms of clarity but the sense of the poetry, the genre of many of the texts set here, is always foremost in a series of fulfilling performance

 

Martin Bussey

Herbert Howells’s Clavichord Music: Lambert’s Clavichord; Howell’s Clavichord.

Julian Perkins (clavichord) PRIMA FACIE PFCD065/66

There is something delightful about how the creativity of talented composers and performers is heightened when faced with supposedly limited resources. The poor reception of Howells’ Second Piano Concerto in 1925, provoked a crisis of confidence in the young composer. Following his acquaintance with the clavichord-makerHerbert Lambert, Howells began a new love affair with the clavichord, a domestic instrument of bygone ages, to compose some of his most surprising and inventive miniatures.

Not only are the pieces found in Lambert’s Clavichord (written in a summer flurry in 1927), and Howells’ Clavichord, written between 1941 and 1958, personal homages to friends and colleagues, each piece dedicated to a grandee of the English musical establishment, but they connect the composer with a past era of English musical glory. Needless to say, although the pieces of Lambert’s Clavichord are more obviously inspired by the composers and keyboard styles found in The Fitzwilliam Virginal Book, as Howells progresses into his later work for clavichord, we hear nods to other sound worlds from J. S. Bach to jazz. There is something gentlemanly about the way Howells absorbs and combines the styles of old music, and the music of his contemporaries (he directly quotesRubbra, Dyson, and Walton in the pieces dedicated to those composers), with music of a distinctly developed ‘Howellsian’ flavour. Yet, at the same time, one feels the composer cements his own reputation as a truly well-connected English composer. There is a sense that these pieces of great domestic intimacy also provide a snapshot of the whole of contemporary English musical society, with Herbert Howells as the epicentre.

Indeed, this first recording of the complete published clavichord music of Herbert Howells, actually played on the clavichord (John McCabe recorded the same works on the piano in 1994 forHyperion onCDH55152) seems to be a happy love triangle between composer, performer and the instruments played, and surely one that is welcomed, given the composer’s own penchant for the instrument. Reading the CD notes, one is struck by the labour of love that has gone into the recording. Affectionately dedicated to the late Ruth Dyson in her centenary year, who had previously recorded Lambert’s Clavichord and a selection of pieces from Howells’ Clavichord, there are detailed notes written by Andrew Mayes. There are also notes on the instruments and how they were chosen from the performer and the clavichord maker Peter Bavington: a Dolmetsch (1925) clavichord for Lambert’s Clavichord, and a Bavington (2015) clavichord for Howell’s Clavichord. For two pieces (‘Goff’s Fireside’ and‘Patrick’s Siciliano’) a delightful, yet intimately voiced Thomas Goff clavichord (1952) is used. At first, such a meagre homage to an instrument appropriate to Howells’ own era seems odd, but as is often the case with music of the greatest vision and ingenuity, the desire to choose an instrument that can capture both the essence of an authentic sound world needs to be balanced with the demands of the composer, especially when recording an instrument that normally functions at the lowest dynamic level. Furthermore, the sleeve notes warn the listener that they may experience a ‘certain amount of action noise’ as such instruments need to be recorded at close range. As a listener, such intimacy with the instruments feels a privilege, and it is beautifully judged by the engineers on this recording. It is one that can only be enjoyed in the modern age through sound recording. Gone are the days when every home housed a clavichord!

Julian Perkins’ performances match the originality and creativity of Howells’ music. Indeed, the playing itself champions the cause to hear these pieces played on the clavichord, such that the listener may find it difficult to return to the hackneyed sound-world of the piano. As Howells’ compositional skills seem to exist in a playpen of creativity, so Perkins’ playing evokes sounds one would think unimaginable on such an instrument. The performer’s experience of keyboard music of the past is a great asset to the skill and understanding with which he performs these works, which often foray into realms of advanced modernity. The lyricism of the playing in intimate gems such as ‘Lambert’s Fireside’,and the Purcellian ‘Wortham’s Grounde’ in Lambert’s Clavichord’; and ‘Goff’s Fireside’ (a real highlight on the 1952 instrument, and a striking change of colour on the recording), and the touching epitaph ‘Finzi’s rest’ in Howells’ Clavichord, is counterbalanced by playing of extraordinary zest and vibrancy. Perkins conjures a brass like fanfare in ‘E B’s Fanfarando’, whilst seeming to evoke mosquito-like buzzing from the quiet trills. A pleasing feel for the slow dance of the gentlemanly ‘Dyson’s Delight’, with its delicious English harmonic twists, is immediately offset by music that feels like it has emerged from the jazz-club in pieces such as ‘Jacob’s Brawl’, and ‘Hughes’s Ballet’. There are moments in these upbeat pieces that achieve a percussiveness that would be impossible even on the modern piano. Perkins’ touch at the keyboard often evokes the sounds of the lute and guitar, especially in the attractive ‘Julian’s Dream’ a homage to the lutenist and guitarist, Julian Bream. Howells’ Clavichord concludes with ‘Walton’s Toye’ an explicit extemporisation on Walton’s ‘Crown Imperial. Such deference to a musical colleague, whilst at the same time epitomising his own personal style, is indicative of the pleasure this collection of endlessly surprising pieces can give. Highly recommended for both clavichord aficionados, as well as the uninitiated!

 

Gavin Roberts

Nights Not Spent Alone: Complete Works for Mezzo-Soprano by Jonathan Dove

Kitty Whately, mezzo-soprano, Simon Lepper, piano. Champs Hill 2017 CHRCD125

‘We were very tired… We had gone back and forth all night’.

Edna St Vincent Millay’s words from ‘Recuerdo’, the first song of the album’s eponymous group of settings, could serve well as a cynical assessment of contemporary chamber composition. In an artistic period plagued by the micro-genre, composers often resort to fusing aspects of other genres in an effort to create something new, something subverting that defeatist mantra of everything having ‘been done’. When listening to Nights Not Spent Alone, Kitty Whately’s second album for Champs Hill Records, it might seem evident that Jonathan Dove is guilty of this trope; indeed, through the course of successive song cycles, aspects of jazz, folk, musical theatre, and even cabaret are detectable. The combinations, however, are deft. In setting texts from North American, Indian, Spanish and English poets, Dove succeeds in incorporating apt stylistic brushstrokes whilst retaining his distinctively rhythmic and harmonically expansive sound world. The resulting mien is something that sits between a Brittenesque take on English folksong and a more conservative American jazz standard, with a hint of minimalism along the way.

The ordering of works on the disc demonstrates great consideration towards narrative progression. The opening work, My Love is Mine, an unaccompanied song written in 1997 for a wedding, functions as an opening office, an ideological credo. Expansive, clean, folk-like, the idyll speaks of love and looking to spring. Whately throws down the gauntlet here, giving a powerful, warm, emotionally-present reading of this ebullient melody that establishes the quality of her tone for the rest of the album. This is developed through the variously intimate and excited Five Am’rous Sighs. A warmth reminiscent of Vaughan Williams negates any cheap eroticism in ‘Between Your Sheets’, leading to a boundless exuberance in ‘Finish’ and ‘All These Dismal Looks’, before settling into a more pensive, lontano air for ‘Venus’.

Cut My Shadow, containing the blackest texts of any of the cycles, sees Dove at his most barbaric: staccatissimo rhythmic cells and jazz-infused harmonies are in abundance. ‘Surprise’ and ‘Song of the Dry Orange Tree’, the first and final songs, are at once redolent of Bernstein (re-inforcing the theatrical subtext), but also suggest lesser-known Latin voices, such as the Argentinian Alberto Ginastera, and in a more contemporary context, the Spanish composer Antón García Abril. Dove seemingly communicates not only the blunt, yet evocative narrative of each text, but, through a fiery vocal line, the revolutionary character of Lorca himself. Indeed, Whately’s almost feral chest-voice declamation of the word ‘Madre’, set unrelentingly in a melismatic, forte falling phrase, is simultaneously angry, sorrowful and fiery; and entirely engaging. Alongside Latin flavourings, the presence of musical theatre is also felt. ‘Song of the Dry Orange Tree’, in particular, seems to owe a debt to the stylings of Sondheim: the restless motivic repetitions are voiced naturalistically, along with the accompaniment’s syncopated added-note harmonies and instances of melodic doubling, such as on ‘Free me from the anguish / Of seeing myself fruitless.’ The resulting effect is jazzily intimate and eminently theatrical. Mention must be made of Simon Lepper’s work in these songs. He masters the volatile Latin rhythms and presents them with great accuracy and élan.

The album’s new work. Nights Not Spent Alone, features texts decidedly naturalistic and nakedly dramatic for their time. This reveals something, perhaps, of the St Vincent Millay’s socialist-feminist views. The songs were commissioned jointly by BBC Radio 3, for whom Whately was a New Generation Artist, and the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artists Scheme. Of the three poems, it is the first two, ‘Recuerdo’ and ‘What Lip My Lips Have Kissed’, that share the more consonant dramatic and musical language. The sense of contemplation and distance travelled that pervades these two songs owes a debt to late nineteenth and twentieth century English folksong and chamber works: Britten’s folksong arrangements, Finzi’s Earth and Air and Rain and Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad can all be glimpsed through the sustained vocal line and figure-based, though expansive, piano writing. ‘I Too Beneath Your Moon’ acts as a synthesis between the bounding folk language and the more rhythmically barbaric stylings of ‘Cut My Shadow’. The piano is initially forward-driving, arpeggiated and restless, before changing into a more accented language akin to the earlier Latin sound world. Kitty Whately is afforded her most polarised dynamic moments in this work; from the rhythmic marcato of ‘the long necks / Of neighbours sitting where their mothers sat’ to the nakedly powerful operatic sound of ‘lust’, she makes full use of her vocal assets.

Kitty Whately is indeed a revelation. Traversing a range of emotions, styles and articulations, all with a certain melodic consonance, she shows a mature polish and assuredness. One of Dove’s defining talents in composing for particular artists is his ability to evoke the stylistic mannerisms of each specific voice. That the titular cycle does not immediately mark itself out as the one dedicated to Whately is a testament to her versatility and vocal maturity. She is gifted a set of works that rely neither on vocal pyrotechnics nor nebulous extended techniques, but rather on a dedication to the dramatic narrative through an inherent lyricism. Dove’s preferred technique in writing for the solo voices, evident in each work on this disc, is to write a sostenuto line for the voice, with rhythmic and stylistic gestures largely being found in the piano accompaniment. Even the more spiky, fractious moments in songs such as ‘Song of the Dry Orange Tree’ and ‘I Too Beneath Your Moon’ benefit from being constructed of consonant motivic cells. Whately’s warmth of tone and immediacy of response are the primary facets in realising an authentic, consistent sound across each cycle. She negotiates all her most operatic moments effortlessly, with a faster vibrato and more brilliance in her tone. One may perhaps perceive a certain shrillness in these moments; they are nevertheless dramatically appropriate and authoritative.

If the accompanist is indeed the key to deciphering Dove’s stylistic influences, the role of the pianist is equal in importance to the singer, and undoubtedly illustrative of the composer’s background as a repetiteur. Simon Lepper is responsive and impressively assured throughout the course of each work. Although appearing to have particular appetite for all the most energetic, rhythmic moments, he is deeply sensitive and responsive in the more intimate works. Matching the lyrical intensity of ‘All the Future Days’, he demonstrates an exquisite restraint combined with an ably nimble touch in the wonder-like ostinatos of ‘Autobiography’ and ‘Spider’, whose accompaniments are perhaps the most familiar in their pointillistic repetitions to those who are enthusiasts of Dove’s choral music.

Technically, the album is a triumph. The recording, production and mastering are superlative; the resulting sound crystal-clear, yet having the requisite warmth and resonance. The balance between the performers is extremely well-considered: the singer is always prevalent, both in terms of volume in the rounder sound of the disc’s more operatic episodes, and of diction in the porcelainic intimacy of quieter moments. Yet Lepper is strong enough to act perfectly as both support and foil where needed. It is the sense of narrative conviction in every respect: text choice, performance, and programme order, that marks this album as noteworthy among a sea of similar releases. What Dove brings to his work through reverence to the narrative, Whately and Lepper complement with emotional and stylistic sensitivity and authenticity. ‘From what I had to build with: honest bone / Is there, and anguish; pride; and burning thought;’ The prospect of more music stories from Whately, told with this level of engagement, this ‘honest bone’, is very exciting.

 

Henry Page