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Available from the composer

Gary HIGGINSON (b. 1952)
From Above
CD 1
A Meditation Concerning Angels Op. 138 (1998/9) [8:51]
Maria Beeson (soprano); Jeremy Munro (baritone); Neil Curry (speaker)
Junior and Senior Choirs of Our Lady’s Chetwynde School/Chamber Orchestra of Chethams School of Music, Manchester/Gary Higginson
Two Songs from ‘Four Reflections on Childhood’ Op. 135 (1997/2001) [3:58]
Gary Higginson (tenor); Amy Bagnall (piano)
Et Omnes eandem spiritualem ederunt Op. 130 (1997) [2:37]
Videntes Stellam Op. 142 No. 2 (2001) [1:59]
Penrith Singers/Colin Marsden
String Trio Op. 54 (1980/1) [10:09]
Julian Cann Trio
Epiphany House Op. 90 No. 1 (1987) [5:28]
‘Pieces of Eight’ with ‘Gaudeamus’
The Return of Odysseus Op. 141 (2000/1) [10:47]
Jeremy Munro (baritone); Michelle Larcombe (soprano); Amy Bagnall (piano)
Three Movements from ‘Six Contrasted Miniatures’ for Wind Quintet Op. 46 (1976/8) [6:35]
Ensemble Lumière
CD 2
Song Cycle ‘She Appears Again’ Op. 129 (1995/6) [11:31]
Jeremy Munro (baritone); Amy Bagnall (piano)
Meditations on ‘The Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross’ Op. 67 (1983) [9:20]
Roland Fudge (violin); Alexa Whiteman (piano)
Two Pieces for Girls’ Voices [4:22]
The Girls Choir of Our Lady’s Chetwynde School; Judith Taylor/Gary Higginson (piano)
Sonatina for Clarinet and Piano Op. 37 (1978) [9:29]
Richard Bagnall (clarinet); Amy Bagnall (piano)
Two Songs from ‘What then is Love’ for high voice and piano Op. 70 (1979/85) [4:17]
Lesley-Anne Dawes (soprano); Alistair Dawes (piano)
Suite for Recorder Duet Op. 148 (2002) [4:23]
Philip Gruar (recorder); Elizabeth Gruar (recorder, bass viol)
Prelude for Orchestra, ‘Berrow Woods’ Op. 50 (1980/1) [4:55]
Henley Symphony Orchestra/Andrew Tillett
Recording dates and locations not given
[50:39 + 49:29]


Experience Classicsonline

Gary Higginson is a musician with several strings to his bow. He is Director of Music at Our Lady’s Chetwynde School, Barrow in Furness. He also sings professionally, both as a counter-tenor and as a tenor. As a writer on music he specialises in Medieval and Renaissance music as well as the music of the last century and is also a frequent contributor to MusicWeb International. He appears as a performer in a few items in this collection of recordings but the main thrust of this issue is to showcase his activities as a composer.

He was a private pupil of Edmund Rubbra. His other teachers included Patric Standford and John Joubert. As will be apparent from the track-listing above, he has many compositions to his credit – over 150 works with opus numbers – and his output is wide-ranging. More background information about him is held on the MusicWeb International site.

The music included in this collection, entitled From Above gives, I suspect, a fairly good overview of Higginson’s output and style. There is a short orchestral piece, some choral music, including one such work accompanied by orchestra, a good leavening of chamber pieces, and several songs. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that, as a rule, he prefers to work on a smaller canvass. Thus, for example, I note that he has written a couple of operas for children but I don’t believe he’s composed any symphonies or concertos. It’s noticeable also that he’s penned a significant amount of music for solo singers, or instrumentalists and for small ensembles and choirs. As to his style, well, on the evidence of the music included here, it’s by no means derivative, and there is often that indefinable but definite feel of “Englishness” about the music. Here and there I thought I detected the beneficent influence of Rubbra, a composer whose work I much admire. With one exception I found the music accessible and approachable, both for listeners and, I should imagine, for performers.

That one exception is the String Trio, written at the start of the 1980s when the composer was studying at Birmingham University with Joubert and others. This is a terse, abstract piece, described by Higginson as “a compact ten minute virtuoso, atonal exercise”. It comes across as an austere work, earnest in tone, and I’m afraid I found it rather hard going, though people more attuned than I am to atonality or to the medium of the string trio may respond more positively.

I was more taken with Meditations on ‘The Seven Last words of Christ from the Cross’. This is an interesting work for violin and piano. As befits its subject matter, it’s an intense piece, even anguished at times. The work is divided into seven sections, played continuously, and I think it’s a pity that these sections weren’t tracked separately on the disc, as the start of each new section isn’t obvious. Comparing this work with the String Trio, and noting the success of several items of vocal music in this set, I wonder if Higginson is better when responding to words or scenarios rather than when writing abstract music.

I said that the composer appears as performer also. We hear him in two songs from his cycle Four Reflections on Childhood. He has a light, clear voice. His is very much an English tenor – a type of voice I like – and the clarity both of pitching and of diction are welcome. The diction is especially important as Higginson the composer displays in these songs, and in other vocal items, a suitable feeling for words.

I was even more impressed, however, with the several contributions of another singer, baritone Jeremy Munro, an expressive performer who possesses a firm round tone and whose diction is excellent. He appears in The Return of Odysseus, a highly charged duet for soprano and baritone. It’s a setting of words by the Cumbrian poet, Neil Curry in which poet and composer explore, in Higginson’s words, “the coming together after estrangement of a man and wife.” This isn’t easy music to hear but it’s involving. At the very end the two singers reach reconciliation in a quiet unaccompanied passage, which is all the more effective coming after the tense music heard earlier in the piece. Both singers do well, especially Munro, but unfortunately not all the words are distinct and as the text isn’t supplied it’s a little hard fully to appreciate the piece.

Munro also makes an impact in She Appears Again, which he delivers very well and with evident feeling. This is a cycle of four songs on the unusual theme of older men falling in love for the first time towards the end of their lives. I thought the most impressive part of this work was the concluding song, an extended and rather impassioned setting of words by Robert Graves.

I must mention one other instrumental work, the Sonatina for clarinet and piano. This short but pleasing offering is cast in three movements, in the first of which, an Andante, the plangent singing tone of the clarinet is well explored. A perky Scherzando is followed by a movement entitled Alla Bach, which is akin to a Bachian aria and which put me in mind also of Finzi. The work receives a good performance, compromised somewhat by the clangy tone of the piano, at least as recorded.

There’s a link between this clarinet work and the extracts from Six Contrasted Miniatures for Wind Quintet, in that the second of the movements included here, ‘A Joke’ is an arrangement of the Scherzando from the Sonatina.

The music on these CDs is well crafted. If I have a criticism it would be that much of the music included in the collection is rather serious in tone. There are exceptions such as parts of the last two works I’ve mentioned. The choir from the school at which Higginson teaches give us a delightful little Italian carol, Canto de natalizio, as one of the two pieces for girls’ voices included on Disc Two. Another example of Higginson’s ability to write with some wit is the first of the three movements from his five-movement Suite for Recorder Duet. Entitled ‘The trolls meet Rudolph’ this miniature entertainingly interweaves Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and In the Hall of the Mountain King. Unfortunately the rest of the Suite is nowhere near as entertaining. Overall, I wish the selection of pieces had included a few more examples of this composer in his lighter vein.

That reservation aside, this set is a useful introduction to an inventive composer who clearly writes music to be “used”, which is as it should be: there’s no point in composing pieces that will just gather dust on library shelves. Gary Higginson has clearly set out not only to write the music that he wants to write but that musicians will want to perform. Since it sounds as if all the performers here are giving of their best I would say that he’s succeeded in that objective. The documentation includes very brief notes by the composer about each piece.

John Quinn




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