Mhairi Lawson, soprano; Clare Wilkinson, mezzo-soprano; James Gilchrist, tenor; Matthew Brook, bass; Ian Buckle & Anna Markland, piano.

It is very good to see this disc, which enables access to the music of one of the leading choral directors of the late twentieth century, but a figure whose musicianship and immense creativity goes far beyond the confines of choirs. Happily still with us at 98, Stephen Wilkinson directed the BBC Northern Singers for many years. His repertoire was famously wide and eclectic. Notably, it embraced the choral music of contemporary British composers such as John Gardner and Anthony Milner whose star has now fallen somewhat. This breadth of interest is evident in Stephen’s own writing, in which the legacy of Finzi can often be discerned. An interesting comparison can be made between Finzi’s setting of Proud Songsters and that on this disc. The songs on this disc show mastery of diverse styles but always at the service of the text and expressed in a distinctive individual voice. Herein lies one of the strengths of Stephen’s conducting and composing. His attention to detail as a conductor was legendary. The author was once the recipient of a private, individual session, because of unavailability for a rehearsal, in which minute details of rests, and where consonants were placed, were rigorously covered, but all within the context of what the text actually meant. Always demanding, Stephen’s demands were relayed with a twinkle in the eye that is reflected in several of the songs here. Clare Wilkinson, Stephen’s daughter, and one of the most expressive young singers around, has assembled a group of performers of the highest calibre in this recording.

Economy of musical language is a characteristic of many of the songs on the disc. There is always a singing approach to vocal lines, although this doesn’t mean an absence of rigour in the musical language. The chromatic language of At the manger, albeit underpinned by insistent pedal notes, gives a vivid sense of Mary’s apprehension. The spare setting of Jonson’s The Hour-Glass, with static vocal lines at times, brilliantly evokes the insistent and unstoppable march of time.

The songs are, typically for the composer, who is something of a polymath, very intelligent in their choice of texts. For example, only one verse of In the bleak midwinter is used. The first song is a somewhat ruthlessly but wisely pruned setting of Rupert Brooke’s Granchester. The songs are musical creations, not slavish recitations of the poems in music. At the same time, the clarity with which decisions were taken regarding the verses or phrases to be omitted enables the many razor-sharp, often epigrammatic, musical ideas which colour individual poetic images so effortlessly to stand out in relief. Central to the disc is a group of W.B Yeats poems, to which Stephen Wilkinson’s impressive intellect is absolutely well matched.To a Young Girl is brilliant in the prolonged rhythms of the vocal line which stretch across the apparently regular rhythmic figure of the piano part in an agony of fruitless longing.

Similarly, melodic lines which run across the metrical lines of O do not love too long enable the sense to be conveyed with great clarity; the message is simple, if dispiriting. Just occasionally an instinctive sense of a rhythmic pattern to suit complex phraseology of earlier days can seem to be at the expense of melodic invention. In passages of The Garden, Marvell’s philosophical musings take over from musical immediacy occasionally, although they always lead to a felicitous moment of music image-painting, for example in the final line. Setting twentieth-century verse provokes an instinctive, idiomatic melodic response, well shown in the setting of MacNiece’sThe Sunlight on the Garden, which is particularly adept in capturing the inner rhymes. The sweep and pacing of this setting is particularly memorable, captured perfectly by James Gilchrist and Anna Markland. There is a similarly instinctive response apparent in the setting of the fond memories of Eleanor Farjeon’s The Gate in the Wall.
Humour is a key characteristic of the composer’s artistic make-up, although amusement is always based firmly on intelligence rather than flippancy. Several of the later songs on the disc transfer the twinkle in Stephen Wilkinson’s eye into settings of amusing poetry. In many ways Edward Lear is an ideal song-writing companion. The well-known poems are artfully supported by deft harmonic inflections, a characteristic of the disc.

The piano writing in the settings is often spare. This is apparent from the setting of Granchester. Economical textures enable both clarity of text but also an understanding of Brooke’s sometimes lengthy groups of lines as they move slowly to their key point. This trait of Brooke is perhaps stretched to the ultimate in his fish-focused Heaven. Here, touches of lounge-bar harmony provide necessary relief to the poet’s rather too intense conceit of a fish heaven as a reproof to religious belief. Where textures are thickened, as in the essentially homophonic accompaniment to Joly Jankyn, it serves to underline, with a stylistic nod to Warlock, perhaps, the medieval origin of the text. Similarly, in Maude Gonne takes down a book, richness of harmony is key to the mood of regret.
The performances are of a calibre to match the songs. Occasionally voices sound perhaps a notch too far forward, but texts are always immaculately clear. The contrasts between the voices are used to excellent advantage, for example, the richness of Clare Wilkinson’s voice in Joly Jankyn being complemented by the ardour of Matthew Brook’s assertive conclusion to Eternal Summer. James Gilchrist’s crisp but cantabile lyricism is displayed at its best, particularly in the setting of Come away Death.So also is his deftness of touch, particularly in the Welsh-inflected humour of Chapels, a setting of a poem by hymn writer Fred Pratt Green. While never giving less than high-calibre vocal quality, all the singers capture the lightness which many of the settings require, while avoiding archness, for example, in the concluding stanza of The Owl and the Pussycat.Similarly, nimble and clean fingers are constantly characteristic of the fine array of accompanists.

 

Martin Bussey