Hymn to Matter
Six Songs for Female Voices.
National Youth Orchestra
of Scotland. RSNO/Christopher Bell.
NYCoS CD1. (56'
NYCoS, 18, Polmont Park, Polmont, by Falkirk FK2 0XT. (Tel: 01324
This recent National Youth Choir of Scotland release is entitled "A Burns
Sequence" after John Gardner's 1995 piece for choir and orchestra. The work
takes the form of a song cycle consisting of eight settings of Burns' poetry
ranging from the lyrical "My love is like a red, red rose" to the coquettish
"O whistle an' I'll come to you. It was written as a result of a commission
by the British Federation of Youth Choirs.
The opening "Prayer under the Pressure of Violent Anguish" reflects the religious
nature of the text (a sort of dialogue with God) with a starkly beautiful
hymn-like theme for choir underpinned by a quirky orchestral accompanying
figure utilising dotted rhythms. The concluding "Paraphrase of the First
Psalm" mirrors the religious fervour of the opening setting and provides
a satisfying conclusion to the work, a true cycle of songs.
John Gardner's scoring is witty and economical and the melodies are memorable
to the point of being hard to shake out of one's mind. The composer's good
humoured personality is writ large throughout the cycle. The work provides
an affectionate homage to Robert Burns in a wide-ranging selection of his
poetry. It is a pity "O whistle
" doesn't include the actual whistling
which graced the last reprise of the chorus in the London Oriana Choir's
performance on the occasion of the composer's 80th birthday
celebration in St John's Smith Square in October 1997. It was a lovely gesture
which set the seal on this charming waltz-like number.
The National Youth Choir of Scotland is most impressive, capturing the composer's
obvious affection for the poems he sets. Tenor soloist Ross Buddie deserves
special mention for his moving and passionate contribution in "My luve is
like a red, red rose". The RSNO plays with taste and restraint and there
is some authentic-sounding Celtic portamenti from the leader of the RNSO
in "MacPherson's Farewell". The orchestra is under the authoritative direction
of Christopher Bell, who conducted the first performance of the work in Glasgow
in March 1995.
Kenneth Leighton's "Hymn to Matter" (1978) comes as a shock after John Gardner's
light touch and the listener may take a while to adjust to the more advanced
idiom. It is scored for baritone solo, SATB choir, strings, piano and percussion.
The text, by Pierre Teillhard de Chardin, lists the manifestations of matter,
tangible and intangible, which inspire mankind's unending quest for truth
and unity. Cast in one thirteen-minute structure with a series of dynamic
ebbs and flows, the work's string writing is particularly fine. Both choir
and Stewart Kempster, the bass-baritone soloist, acquit themselves well.
It is always a pleasure to welcome a previously unavailable work of Kenneth
Leighton onto disc and the craggy but atmospheric writing he employs in the
accompanying ensemble in "Hymn to Matter" is a timely reminder of his gifts
The final piece on this CD is rather less distinguished. John McEwen's "Six
Songs for Female Voices", in a two-part arrangement with piano accompaniment,
consists of six settings of an unidentified lyricist, all in the Victorian
manner. There is no date given but there is no mistaking the influence of
Sullivan: the opening "Spring Song" actually sounds remarkably similar to
The Mikado's "Three Little Maids from School". At least this opening song
has a pleasant energy about it: the remaining five all share relatively slow
tempi and the lack of variety begins to pall before the end of the work.
The Singers from the NYCoS make the strongest possible case for the piece
and bring some attractive light and shade to it wherever possible. Others
may respond to the work with greater relish. In any event, it is not enough
to prevent the disc from being highly recommendable for the Gardner and Leighton
works alone. I hope the same forces will produce further CDs of Scottish
and Scottish-influenced works.
(The CD is available from: NYCoS, 18, Polmont Park, Polmont, by Falkirk FK2
0XT. (Tel: 01324 711749)