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Heavenly Harmonies - Three Trebles from Blackburn Cathedral
Claudio MONTEVERDI (1567-1643)
Currite populi [03:14]
Maledetto sia l'aspetto [01:18]
Alessandro GRANDI (c1577-1630)
O quam tu pulchra es [03:05]
Marc-Antoine CHARPENTIER (1643-1704)
Panis angelicus (H 243) [01:25]
Thomas TOMKINS (1572-1656)
A Fantasy [03:03]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
Rodelinda (HWV 19): Art thou troubled (after Dove sei) [04:30]
Semele (HWV 58): Where'er you walk [04:26]
Messiah (HWV 56) He shall feed his flock [04:50]; How beautiful are the feet [02:15]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Magnificat in D (BWV 243): Et exultavit [02:47]
Gottfried Heinrich STÖLZEL (?) (1690-1749)
Bist du bei mir [02:44]
Johann Sebastian BACH
Was mir behagt, ist nur die muntre Jagd (BWV 208): Schafe können sicher weiden [04:19]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Voluntary in G (Z 720) [02:45]
Evening Hymn (Z 193) [03:48]
Joseph CORFE (1740-1820)
My misdeeds prevail against me [02:59]
Maurice GREENE (1696-1755)
Arise!, Shine, O Zion, anthem: The Gentiles shall come to Thy light [01:10]
Matthew LOCKE (c1621-1677)
O Domine Jesu Christe/ [01:42]
Anon.
Sweet was the song (Egerton-ms) [01:35]
James NARES (1715-1783)
Rejoice in the Lord o ye righteous [04:28]
Peter CORNET (c1560-c1626)
Fantasia [02:21]
Maurice GREENE
Lord, let me know mine end, anthem: For man walketh in a vain shadow/ [01:14]
Joseph CORFE
I will magnify thee, O Lord [02:30]
Thomas Augustine ARNE (1710-1778)
Where the bee sucks [02:32]
William CROFT (1678-1727)
Voluntary in d minor [01:56]
Pelham HUMFREY (1647-1674)
A Hymn to God the Father [02:29]
Michael ARNE (1740/41-1786)
Care flies from the lad that is merry [01:22]
Richard DERING (c1580-1630)
Gaudent in coelis [01:44]
Daniel Adams, James Holding, Thomas Croxson (trebles), Richard Tanner, Greg Morris (organ)
rec. March, April 2002; August 2004, Blackburn Cathedral, UK. DDD
LAMMAS LAMM194D [72:44]



I must confess that I find it difficult to review a disc like this. On the one hand I am a great admirer of the boy's voice, and also of the long and rich tradition of boys singing in church in Britain. On the other hand, as much as I understand the desire to document the beauty of a particular voice on record I believe that the music always should come first. Therefore, when a record company wants to demonstrate the skills of any singer or player he or she should sing or play the repertoire which is most suitable both to the voice or instrument and the specific skills of the artist. And this is where I have strong reservations about recital discs like this. To run ahead of my final verdict on this disc I have to say that a part of the repertoire on the programme is either not suitable to be sung by boys or fails to receive the performance it requires.
 
In my view the people who have put together the programme deserve loud applause for mostly avoiding the obvious. There are many recordings with British trebles, and most of them contain the same kind of pieces. 'Panis angelicus' by César Franck, or 'Pie Jesu' from Fauré's Requiem have been recorded numerous times by trebles all over the world, and in particular in Britain. Not that this disc completely shuns the traditional 'treble repertoire': 'Where'er you walk' from Handel's oratorio Semele or 'Art thou troubled' from his opera Rodelinda are among trebles' favourites. But the choice of music from the 17th and 18th centuries deserves praise. At the same time the actual choice of compositions is sometimes a little unlucky.
 
The programme notes in the booklet make a false start by stating: "This CD collection brings together some of the finest music of the 17th and 18th centuries for trebles, composed not just in England, but also in Italy, France and Germany." But a number of pieces on this disc were definitely not composed for trebles. First of all, the programme contains some secular music, which was usually not meant to be sung by boys. Not that secular music is completely out of reach for boys' voices: Shakespeare's plays were performed by male actors only, and the songs they contain were certainly sung by boys. These are often very close to the so-called consort-songs, and from that perspective it is reasonable to assume some of these can be sung by boys, as a couple of fine recordings by Connor Burrowes demonstrate. But Monteverdi's madrigal 'Maledetto sia l'aspetto' is most definitely not written for a boy's voice. Both the text and the character of the music seem hardly appropriate for a boy to sing. 'Schafe können sicher weiden' is from Bach's secular cantata BWV 208, and also not written for a boy's voice. The same is true for the arias by Handel I already mentioned.
 
But not all sacred music is written for boys. It is very likely the soprano parts in Italian sacred music of the 17th century was sung by adult male singers, in particular castratos. And the music by Monteverdi and Grandi recorded here strongly points into the direction of such performances: although the text is sacred, these monodies are every inch theatrical, just like the secular music of the time, including the opera. Basically all Italian music, sacred or secular, is theatrical and not very suitable to boy's voices. The actual performances of the Italian pieces support that view, as they belong to the least satisfying items of this disc. Rhythmically they are under par, and there is a lack of ornamentation as well as dynamic contrasts, which are absolutely essential in Italian music.
 
The arias by Handel come off better, but even these require more than the boys can offer. There is some ornamentation here, but it mostly sounds artificial. Bach is another case where the young singers are not able to provide what the music needs. What is required here is good articulation, based on a thorough knowledge of the German language, but that is lacking. It is no coincidence that the second half of the programme, which consists of compositions by English composers, is the most satisfying part of this disc. Nor is it a coincidence that those pieces which most strongly reflect the influence of the Italian style are the weakest, like Purcell's 'Evening Hymn' and Pelham Humfrey's 'Hymn to God the Father'. The performance of the latter piece, although less than ideal, can't hide the fact that Humfrey was a great composer, which makes it hard to understand why he is still largely neglected.
 
Having said all this I hasten to assure the reader that these three trebles are very fine singers, whose voices have a character of their own. They’re also technically pretty good. Blackburn Cathedral should be proud of them, and one can only congratulate the director of music and all people involved for having such great talents at hand and thank them for giving young people the opportunity to develop their musical skills. It is just unfortunate that this disc doesn't always present the three boys in the best possible light. Some of the music they have to sing is unsuitable for any treble or is technically too demanding for these particular trebles.
 
The programme is interspersed with organ pieces, which are played well, but suffer from the equal temperament of the instrument used. Modern tuning largely hides the harmonic boldness of some of the pieces.
 
The booklet contains programme notes in which only some of the items are mentioned. It also contains the lyrics, with translation if necessary, but the anonymous 'Sweet was the song' is absent. The tracklist should have given more precise information: there are no catalogue numbers nor the dates of the composers. The pieces by Greene are extracts from anthems, but their titles are not given. I have added this information as far as I could track it down on the internet.
 
Those who have a special interest in the boy's voice should be interested in this disc. It is nice that it also contains some pieces which are hardly known, like those by Joseph Corfe. Those who look for truly convincing interpretations of the repertoire on this disc, in particular that in the first half, will be disappointed and have to look elsewhere.
 
Johan van Veen
 



 


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