Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Music Webmaster Len Mullenger:

Flight of Song
Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947) We who with songs (1995) Opportunity (2000) Rose-Berries (1990) Song at the Year's Turning (1980) The Flight of Song (1996) To Bethlem did they go (1995) He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (1999)
Judith WEIR (b. 1954) Ascending into Heaven (1983) Two Human Hymns (1995)
Jonathan HARVEY (b. 1939) Thou mastering me God (1989) God is our Refuge (1986) The Tree
Sir Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998) Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (1963)

The Choir of Queen's College, Cambridge directed by James Weeks
Matthew Steynor, organ
Guild GMCD 7213 [DDD 64:25]
 Amazon UK  £11.99  Amazon US

Guild is proving to be an increasingly enterprising and valuable label and we are here presented with an interesting collection of English choral music, recorded (with the exception of two short works by Skempton), in the beautiful acoustic of Queen's College Chapel itself, whose resonances are ideally suited to this repertoire.

The composer best represented is Leamington Spa-based Howard Skempton. Skempton's roots are in experimental music, being one of the founder members, along with the late Cornelius Cardew, of the Scratch Orchestra in the 1960's. At the time he worked regularly with other composers such as John Tilbury, Hugh Shrapnel and John White although it is Skempton whose reputation has been the most lasting. His music is tonal and has a sincerity which goes far deeper than the apparent surface simplicity of the music itself. Anyone who is familiar with his haunting orchestral work Lento, which became something of a cult piece following its release on the NMC Label a few years ago, will recognise the language of these short choral works which span a period of around twenty years. The earliest piece, Song at the Year's Turning, a setting of RS Thomas, is one of his most austere settings, impressive in its painting of the equally austere and wintry verse. What it shares with later settings (apart from Skempton's characteristic abrupt endings, the music just seeming to stop mid sentence) is a great sensitivity to the verse, which is never allowed to become subservient to the music. There is contrast in abundance also. Compare the abstract use of spoken word, graphically notated and perhaps reminiscent of Berio, at the beginning of The Flight of Song, with the third movement of the same work, Chimes, which for me recalls the magical underwater tolling of bells in the first of Vaughan Williams' Three Shakespeare Songs, against the almost naïve simplicity of Rose-Berries, a1990 setting of Mary Webb. Judging by these works alone, it would be good to hear more of Skempton's prolific output committed to disc.

Judith Weir has enjoyed considerable critical acclaim in recent years and justifiably so. Her music, often economic in means but always with something significant and original to say, has been only reasonably represented on disc but particularly well represented in the concert hall. I first heard Ascending into Heaven some years ago in a BBC broadcast and recall being struck at the time by its ethereal beauty. Weir's carol Illuminare, Jerusalem has become something of a contemporary classic and Ascending into Heaven, dating from two years earlier, inhabits a similarly haunting sound world. The prominent part for organ is extremely effective and James Weeks draws sensitive singing from the choir who are clearly very much at home with this music. The Two Human Hymns, Love bade me welcome and Like to the falling of a star, of twelve years later, are less ambitious and demonstrate a softening of Weir's harmonic language. Nonetheless they are pleasurable settings, once again sung with feeling.

Many may know and consider Jonathan Harvey an avant-gardist, although he has produced a considerable quantity of choral and church music throughout his career which shows him in a very different light. The mystical element of his own faith often surfaces in his music, nowhere more evident than in his orchestral masterpiece, Madonna of Winter and Spring, recently released in a magnificent recording on Nimbus by the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra under Peter Eötvös, essential listening for anyone wishing to explore his output. The three works featured here appear to date from the 1980's although we are not given a date for The Tree. Harvey achieves a richness of sonority from the choir and organ which beautifully enhances these deeply felt settings, whose mysterious, sometimes melting, sometimes slightly harder edged harmonies leave a lasting impression. One can sense that Thou mastering me God and God is our Refuge came from the very soul of the composer.

The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis of Sir Michael Tippett, dating to 1963, is by far the best known work on the disc. This is vintage Tippett, the idiosyncratic melody at once recognisable in the opening organ flourish, the choir emphasising the often stark harmony particularly well. The moving Nunc Dimittis which follows is in complete contrast, a sustained choral background over which floats a solo soprano line sung with poignant tenderness.

This disc offers much to commend in both the choice of programme and sensitive performances given by the Choir of Queen's College, who receive excellent support from the organist Matthew Steynor. Most of all it leaves a desire to further explore the music of the fine composers represented. There are useful programme notes provided by the choir's director James Weeks, who at twenty two years of age, is a name I am sure we will hear more of in years to come.

Christopher Thomas

Performance and sound

Return to Index

Reviews from previous months

You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: - The UK's Biggest Video Store Musicians accessories
Click here to visit