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Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
Salt in the Blood (1995) [20:40]
The Darkness Is No Darkness-Segue-S.S. Wesley (1810-76) Thou Wilt Keep Him (1993) [8:05]
First Light (2001) [10:22]
The Snows Descend (1997) [6:45]
The Secret Garden (2004) [21:58]
Fine Arts Brass
BBC Symphony Chorus/Stephen Jackson
Thomas Trotter (organ)
rec. BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, 7-8 May 2005 (Salt in the Blood; The Darkness Is No Darkness; First Light; The Snows Descend); live, BBC Proms, 21 August 2004 (The Secret Garden). DDD
English texts included
NAXOS 8.570346 [67:50]



This is a very important release and Naxos deserve great praise for having the commercial courage to issue what might seem to be – but emphatically shouldn’t be – a CD with specialist appeal.
 
Judith Bingham’s music has been attracting plaudits for some time now and other pieces by her have made it onto disc already but it’s a significant – and well deserved - accolade for her that a whole CD should now be devoted to her music. All but one of the works included here are choral and are challengingly but very well written for voices and perhaps that’s not too surprising since Miss Bingham is a singer herself and, furthermore, a singer of sufficient ability that she was a member of the virtuoso BBC Singers between 1983 and 1986. So far as I’m aware she does not include playing a brass instrument among her accomplishments but her writing for brass, as demonstrated here, seems just as resourceful and expert as is her writing for voices.
 
All the pieces are important but one in particular grabbed my attention. That is The Secret Garden for chorus and organ, which was first performed at the 2004 Promenade Concerts in London’s Royal Albert Hall. It’s that première performance that’s included on this disc and that’s important for two reasons. Firstly, the listener gets the unmistakable frisson of a live event. Secondly, Judith Bingham seized the opportunity to write for what was then the newly restored Albert Hall organ and we hear it in all its splendour with a virtuoso organist at the console.
 
It’s a fascinating work, inspired by the composer’s speculation about what might have happened in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve were expelled. As she writes eloquently in her note: “did God still walk there in the evening, alone and disappointed? Did it become an enclosed world where shame did not exist, a protected and perfect space?” Onto that speculation Miss Bingham grafts a fascination with plants. The text, written by her, contains an abundance of horticultural references. It’s also framed by two short passages from scripture: a verse from Genesis at the start refers to the expulsion of Adam and Eve while at the very end comes a verse from St. Matthew’s Gospel in which Christ compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed.
 
The work divides into five sections, each one entitled as if it were a movement from a French Suite, and although these aren’t separately tracked there are brief but discernible pauses between each one. Miss Bingham writes: “This is meant to be a magical and intriguing piece.” Well, for me, she’s succeeded triumphantly. The first section, ‘Ouverture’, opens with a hugely dramatic, if brief, depiction of Adam and Eve’s banishment. Then the second section, ‘Air de Menuette’ [4:22] has slow-moving choral writing with a fascinating organ accompaniment. The third movement, ‘Vol de Nuit’ [8:36] is quite remarkable. It begins as a nocturnal scherzo with homophonic writing for the choir accompanied by dancing organ figurations. But the choir isn’t involved for long; their music is but the prelude to a fabulously inventive organ solo [from 10:56]. This, the composer says, depicts “the synergy between plants and insects”. I must admit I haven’t quite caught that – yet! – but it’s an amazing passage of music, stunningly realized by Thomas Trotter, who lets us hear the Albert Hall organ in all its glory. The fourth section, ‘Entr’acte’ [12:45] is rather like a recitative. Here the singers alternate snatches of high-lying singing with spoken fragments against a very spare organ accompaniment. The overall effect is arresting. Finally ‘Air de Nuit’ [15:08] is a mysterious, sultry evocation in music of what goes on unseen in the world of plants during the hours of darkness. At the very end, the verse from St. Matthew is heard set to music that’s not dissimilar to that which we heard at the very start for the words from Genesis but this time the music has more grandeur and less of a sense of dread.
 
In the above description I haven’t begun to do justice to this superbly imaginative and rich work. Hear it for yourself. Its appearance on disc is a significant event.
 
There’s a connection with the Promenade Concerts in the other large-scale work on the disc, Salt in the Blood. Miss Bingham relates that she decided to write a piece about the sea and sea shanties during the traditional performance of Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs at the Last Night of the Proms in 1994. (Though she doesn’t say so, I suspect she was performing herself on that occasion as a member of the BBC Singers.) The resulting work, for chorus and brass, is a long way removed from Sir Henry’s patriotic and sometimes sentimental Fantasia but I rather think he would have approved. The text has been assembled by Miss Bingham from a variety of sources including, unbelievably, the Beaufort Scale. Yet it all hangs together and illustrates evocatively five different sorts of weather that one is likely to encounter at sea: calm, breezy, violent storm, fog and calm. At various points in the score we hear four different sea shanties sung by the men’s voices. I apologize if this seems like an atrocious pun but these familiar tunes act rather as thematic anchors and so fulfill an important structural function. There are also three Hornpipes, which are interludes for the brass group. These Hornpipes incorporate some superb, punchy writing for the brass but the contribution of the instrumentalists is no less telling when they’re accompanying the singers. The choral writing sounds to me to be very demanding but not in such a way as to make unreasonable, unnatural demands on the singers as some contemporary composers do. The passage that depicts the storm at sea is thrilling but just as ear catching is the moment when the second Hornpipe ceases abruptly and Miss Bingham makes extraordinary use of the unaccompanied choir to depict the cessation of the storm [10:45]. The work ends quietly but in such a way that the composer conveys to her listeners that even ostensibly calm waters often have strange and powerful currents running beneath the surface. This is another splendidly imaginative work and it’s performed with great panache in this studio recording
 
There’s also a vivid musical imagination at work in First Light although a share of the credit for the success of this piece must surely go to the poet Martin Shaw, who provided a challenging and powerful set of images in the poem about the Incarnation of Christ that he wrote at Miss Bingham’s invitation. Shaw sees the Incarnation as a potent, cataclysmic event and any traditional Christmas sentimentality is far removed from his thoughts. Judith Bingham was clearly inspired by his words and responded with potent imagery of her own. Much of the music is powerful and arresting and the listener’s attention is gripped, even in quiet passages such as at the words “Out from the silence You sing” [around 7:00]
 
The Darkness Is No Darkness is an original idea. It was inspired by Miss Bingham’s reflection on the well-known anthem Thou Wilt Keep Him by Samuel Sebastian Wesley. She takes both the text that Wesley sets and his harmonic language and reworks them into a short piece for unaccompanied choir. This moves seamlessly, via a few bars in which the choir hum with a brief soprano solo over the top of the texture, into Wesley’s anthem. It’s an ingenious concept and I think it comes off very well, shedding an additional light and a new perspective onto Wesley’s familiar piece.
 
The only non-vocal work on the disc is the brass piece, The Snows Descend but even this has its roots in a choral piece for it’s a paraphrase of Judith Bingham’s Gleams of a Remoter World. This re-working features some powerful brass writing but even more passages of genuine poetry in a superb exploration of brass sonorities. I’m glad that Fine Arts Brass, who provide such excellent support to the choir elsewhere on the disc here get a chance to shine in their own right.
 
This is a real ear-opener of a disc, featuring some tremendously inventive and imaginative music. I’ve been enormously impressed by all the pieces in this collection and Stephen Jackson and his singers and players give tremendously assured and committed performances. Indeed, I’m sure Judith Bingham will be delighted with the advocacy that her music receives here. I said at the start of this review that this is a very important release. It’s also an outstanding one and I for one am grateful to Naxos for having the vision to issue it. I recommend this with great enthusiasm.
 
John Quinn
 
see also reviews by Christopher Thomas and Robert Hugill

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