RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
The Passing of the Year (2000) [24:10]
In beauty may I walk (2001) [4:16]
My love is mine (1998) [4:01]
Who killed Cock Robin? (1996) [9:17]
It sounded as if the streets were running (2006) [10:36]
I am the day (1999) [6:51]
Wellcome, all Wonders in one sight! (1999) [4:53]
The Three Kings (2001) [5:19]
Convivium Singers/Neil Ferris
Christopher Cromar (piano)
rec. St. John’s Church, Wimbledon, 28-29 July 2011
NAXOS 8.572733 [69:23]
This will turn out to be, I am sure, one of my favorite recordings of 2012. I first came upon Jonathan Dove’s music on a Hyperion recording of his sacred music, featuring the Wells Cathedral Choir, conducted by Matthew Owens (2010). Over the last year I have occasionally returned to that CD, each time coming away more impressed by Dove’s writing. This new CD has only confirmed and strengthened that impression.
The recording opens with The Passing of the Year, a song-cycle written for double chorus and piano, dedicated in memory of Dove’s mother. The work, which is made up of seven movements divided into three main sections, takes the listener literally and metaphorically through changing seasons. Thankfully, Naxos does not follow its increasingly common practice of making the listener go to its website to search out the texts though they can be found here. Listening with the poetry at hand only increased my admiration for Dove’s sensitive text setting.
The work opens with Invocation, the voices repeatedly singing “O Earth, return!” with an ever increasing intensity. This leads into an extended setting of William Blake’s The narrow bud opens her beauties to the sun, that features contrasting textures of soloist versus choir and high versus low voice to convey the idea of “Summer breaking forth.” The third movement sets Emily Dickinson’s Answer July as a call and response between female and male voices that perfectly captures the playfulness of the text. Movement 4 begins the second section begins with Hot Sun, cool fire, a setting of words by George Peele that uses slowly shifting dissonant chords to evoke how difficult it can be to breathe, let alone move, on a brutally hot summer day. The cycle’s emotional climax is found in Movement 6, a setting of Thomas Nashe’s Adieu! Farewell earth’s bliss. Over an ostinato that bares a passing resemblance to the final minutes of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, one of the choirs intones “Lord, have mercy on us,” as the other choir sings, in achingly beautiful harmonies, about the inevitability of death.
Three times these competing choral textures break off so that all voices can join together in singing “I am sick, I must die”. Even after listening several times, Dove’s setting leaves me shaken. The sadness of that movement is effectively dispelled by the final Ring out, wild bells, a passage from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam that speaks of the promises found in the beginning of a New Year.
The rest of the program is just as impressive as the Song Cycle, and displays a greater variety of musical styles, including a solo for mezzo-soprano (My love is mine), three songs for upper voice/women’s choir (It sounded as if the streets were running). The CD is rounded out with Advent and Christmas music, including The Three Kings, written for Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge.
Dove’s music is impressive, with attractive melodies and tonal harmonic writing. Nevertheless, he is not afraid to use dissonance when it more strongly projects and expresses the text, and his writing displays a particularly strong skill in creating onomatopoeic effects. When I began my listening, I thought it would be helpful to note where Dove’s writing seemed reminiscent of other composers’ work. Sometimes the piano writing, which often uses ostinato figures, reminds me of the minimalists Steven Reich and John Adams. A few of Dove’s melodies soar in a way that recalls Samuel Barber. Answer July brings thoughts of Benjamin Britten’s “Ballad of the Green Broom” from Five Flower Songs. I share these comments not to suggest that Dove is in any way a derivative composer, but rather to express how highly I rate his work. Dove is very much his own man, with masterly word setting that reminds me most strongly of Benjamin Britten and, on this side of the Atlantic, Libby Larsen.
Dove receives the strongest advocacy from his performers. The Convivium Singers, under the assured direction of Neil Ferris, display admirable control of the long line and excellent intonation. I find the balance to be a bit dominated by the women’s voices, and would not have minded a few more men in each section. But the balance never detracted from my immense enjoyment of this recording. Accompanist Christopher Cromar’s playing is splendid, self-effacing virtuosity that serves the choir and the music.
I urge you to purchase this CD as quickly as possible. It is gorgeous and poignant music, performed with wholehearted fervor by an excellent choir, all at budget price.
David A. McConnell
Gorgeous and poignant, performed with wholehearted fervor.
See also review by Paul Corfield Godfrey