A Garland of Carols*
The Gloucestershire Wassail [[3:49]
The Holly and the ivy [3:52]
A Kiss for the Baby [4:05]
Sweet was the Song [3:06]
Interlude for Harp [6:20]
There is no Rose [2:31]
Cold December’s Wind [5:36]
Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day [3:09]
I Saw Three Ships [4:17]
Epilogue - The Shepherd’s Carol [3:51]
Cycle of 5 Songs, “Black Sea”** [16:24]
Impromptu for Harp* [8:20]
My Beloved [4:12]
Williams (harp); **Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor); **Fali Pavri (piano)
Oxford Voices/Mark Shepherd
rec. Charterhouse, Godalming, Surrey 25-26 April 2009 and 17 - 18
February 2007; ** The Warehouse, London, 5 June 2009
English texts included
GUILD GMCD 7335 [76:19]
Anthony Bolton is, in the best - and truest - sense of the term, an amateur musician. By this I mean he is not a professional musician and he composes for the love of it. He wrote some music while a student and now, in recent years, he has returned to composition as he winds down his full-time career. That career has been as one of the leading investment fund managers in the City of London. Having had the opportunity to revive his interest in writing music he has taken things seriously: he had some composition lessons with Colin Matthews and is now a pupil of Julian Anderson.
I don’t know in what other musical genres Anthony Bolton has written but, on the evidence of this disc, he seems to have a predilection for and a natural affinity with the human voice.
The largest work in this programme is his A Garland of Carols, for high voices and harp. He was prompted to write the settings when his sons were Quiristers at Winchester Cathedral, though both boys had left the choir before the work was finished - it took several years to write and was first performed in 2006. I haven’t seen a score but it sounds as if the writing is never in more than two parts - decani and cantores? The scoring for high voices and harp immediately recalls Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and Bolton readily acknowledges Britten’s music in general - a long-time enthusiasm - and that work in particular as an influence.
The work features some lovely writing both for the voices and for the harp. Bolton is clearly a fastidious writer and one who has a great respect for the words he has chosen to set. I’d say that he also has a genuine melodic gift and there are some felicitous ideas in this set of carols. I do have one reservation, however, and this concerns what seems to me to be the fairly restricted emotional range of the work as a whole. Quite a lot of it is reflective and even such a carol as ‘I Saw Three Ships’ doesn’t seem to prompt a particularly joyful setting. By the same token ‘Tomorrow Shall be my Dancing Day’ is rather reflective; the music never dances and I jotted down in my notes “where’s the energy?” I thought back to Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and. just considering the titles of those pieces reminds one how much more sheer variety and vitality there is in Britten’s collection. For all its merits - and they are several - Bolton’s work contains nothing to match the joy of ‘Wolcum Yole!’ or the drive and excitement of ‘This little Babe’ or ‘Adam lay y-bounden’.
I also wonder if the piece is limited by the two-part writing? When we hear the very last work on the disc, My Beloved, that’s written for four-part mixed choir and the much greater tonal and harmonic richness is very welcome. It’s possible also that AGarland of Carols might make a better impact sung by the treble voices for whom it was conceived. I mean no implied criticism here of the ladies of Oxford Voices, who sing the piece very well indeed, but sopranos inevitably lack the edge and, dare one say it, the youthful exuberance of trebles.
Given the melodic appeal of A Garland of Carols I was somewhat disappointed that this wasn’t more obviously carried over into Black Sea. This is a cycle of five poems by the Canadian poet, Mark Strand (b. 1934). I don’t know - we aren’t told - whether this is a later work than A Garland of Carols but it’s certainly stronger meat. In general the vocal line is quite angular - certainly more so than in the carol settings - and quite often the piano writing is fairly spare - in the fourth song, ‘Storm’, however, it’s very agitated for the most part. The most approachable of the set is the third song, ‘My Name’, which is slow and atmospheric - and very well sung by Richard Edgar-Wilson. This fine song has genuine emotional depth. Like its companions the song is serious in tone. Perhaps the poetry of Mark Strand is generally serious but I feel it would have been to the benefit of the cycle if Anthony Bolton had provided at least one lighter setting. As it is I found this collection of songs was something to respect rather than love. Richard Edgar-Wilson and pianist Fali Pavri are committed advocates.
The Interlude for Harp was written especially for this recording. It’s based on the octatonic scale. Of course, because it’s written for harp the piece contains many lovely sounds - and not a few glissandi. But it’s actually quite a dark piece and Sioned Williams, the principal harpist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, plays it with refinement and no little power.
As I indicated earlier, the final piece, My Beloved, taps a richer vein in Bolton’s musical vocabulary. Written in 2007 for his daughter’s wedding, it’s a setting of famous words from the Old Testament Song of Solomon. Here the harmonies are warm, full and rich. As befits the text, this piece contains some of the most sensuous music on the disc. The work has recently been published and it’s worthy of the attention of other choirs.
Oxford Voices, under the capable direction of Mark Shepherd, serve Anthony Bolton’s music well, as do the other performers on this disc. These well-presented recordings should help to bring his music to the attention of a wider public.
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