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
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,
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,
a rule, he prefers to work on a smaller canvass. Thus, for
example, I note that he has written a couple of operas
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,
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.
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.