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