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Geoffrey BURGON (b. 1941)
Choral Music
At the round earth’s imagined corners (1971) [4:40]
The Assumption (2001)* (No. 1 of Christ’s Love) [2:33]
Short Mass (1965) [10:50]
Of flowers and emeralds sheen (2004)* [5:01]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (1979) [7:30]
As the angels stood (1992)* (No. 1 of The First World) [2:04]
Apple Blossom (1992)* (No. 2 of The First World) [3:08]
The Corpus Christi Carol (2001)* (No. 2 of Christ’s Love) 4:39]
The song of the creatures (1987)* [12:07]
Death be not proud (2005)* [3:52]
Come let us pity not the dead (2005)* [5:07]
Te Deum (2002)* [6:19]
Nunc dimittis (1979, re-arranged 1997)* [3:19]
*denotes first recording
The Choir of Wells Cathedral/David Bednall (organ)/Alan Thomas (trumpet)/Matthew Owens
rec. Wells Cathedral, Somerset, 20-23 February 2006. DDD
HYPERION CDA67567 [72:35]

Millions of people will know of Geoffrey Burgon’s music, probably without being aware of it. He wrote the music for two of the very finest British television series ever made: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Brideshead Revisited. His 1979 setting of the ‘Nunc dimittis’, included here, was the evocative music that was played over the closing titles of Tinker, Tailor. In his admirable notes Andrew Stewart says that Burgon’s music “suggests that [his] aesthetic compass is readily set towards the popular.” Perhaps this should not surprise us when we learn from Mr. Stewart that Burgon’s first love was the jazz trumpet and that when he eventually turned to composition, under the guidance of Peter Wishart, the seminal influences on his work included Bach, Britten and Stravinsky. It’s certainly true that all the music included on this disc is highly accessible but that’s not a code for “populist”, still less does it imply any dumbing down.

The afore-mentioned setting of the ‘Nunc dimittis’ is included here, both in its original version and in a fairly recent revision. The revision omits the haunting trumpet part and the singers are unaccompanied. I haven’t seen a score but I imagine that the chorus parts largely replicate the original organ accompaniment. I must say I strongly prefer the original; the revised version is somehow softer in tone. The performance of the original version is sung – very well – by unison upper voices but this way of presenting the piece loses something compared to the ethereal, haunting sound of a solo treble as heard at the end of Tinker, Tailor. I hadn’t known about Burgon’s affinity with the jazz trumpet until I read the notes accompanying this CD. That may well explain the use of that instrument in this and three other pieces here recorded. However, I’ve always wondered if the opening aria of Handel’s Birthday Ode for Queen Anne, Eternal Source of Light Divine was a model, either conscious or unconscious, for the ‘Nunc dimittis’.

We also get the ‘Magnificat’ that Burgon wrote as a companion piece for it. This is written for upper voices only and features a busy organ accompaniment. I don’t feel that the thematic material is anywhere near as interesting as in the case of the ‘Nunc dimittis’.

Another, much earlier, liturgical work is the Short Mass, an unaccompanied Latin setting written for Brecon Cathedral. The writing for voices is effective and the work makes a positive impression. There are hints of an indebtedness to Britten’s Missa Brevis, but the piece has its own definite character.

I was impressed with the two pieces that Burgon wrote for Remembrance Sunday in 2005. Death be not proud sets striking words by John Donne and for the most part it’s a surprisingly subdued setting of a powerful text. Come let us pity not the dead, on the other hand, sets a poem by Drummond Allison, a young poet killed in action in 1943 at the age of just twenty-two. As Andrew Stewart observes, Burgon’s “economy of writing allows Allison’s plea to pity Death but not the dead to speak from beyond the grave.”

Another striking work is the piece that opens the programme, At the round earth’s imagined corners. This is another Donne setting, for soprano solo, trumpet and organ. Catherine Hart, the soloist here, does well in a part conceived for the voice of Felicity Palmer, no less. Her young voice doesn’t really have the dramatic heft and brilliance that the words and the music call for but I like very much the purity and clarity of her singing.

This is a good time to mention that the choir includes girl choristers, rather than boy trebles, together with the usual male altos, tenors and basses. Wells Cathedral has had girl choristers since 1994. The cathedral has the luxury of eighteen each of girl choristers and trebles, either of which groups sing with the male Vicars Choral. On this occasion the girls are involved and very well they sing. In fact the whole choir is on excellent form and the frequent solos, all taken from within the choir, are, without exception, well done. Miss Hart’s is the most frequently heard solo voice and jolly good she is too.

Mention should also be made of the fine organ playing of David Bednall. Burgon’s organ writing enhances the vocal parts, never threatening to overwhelm the singers.. As a trumpeter himself he clearly understands that instrument and I should imagine the trumpet lines are rewarding to play; certainly Alan Thomas makes them sound so. Indeed, all the music presented here is well written by a composer who has evident empathy with the human voice and who responds very effectively to the texts that he chooses. I enjoyed everything on the disc though, if I’m to be honest, nothing here lodges as memorably in the brain as does the ‘Nunc dimittis’ and I don’t think that verdict stems from much greater familiarity with that piece.

Hyperion has done Geoffrey Burgon proud. His music has been expertly performed by all concerned under Matthew Owen’s expert leadership. The recorded sound is excellent as is the booklet note. I feel as if I’ve had a splendid and comprehensive introduction to Burgon’s choral music.

John Quinn

 


 

 


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