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Choral music by Jonathan HARVEY, Howard SKEMPTON, Michael TIPPETT and Judith WEIR
The Choir of Queen's College, Cambridge/James Weeks
Matthew Steynor (organ)
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Howard Skempton has the lion's share in this particularly enterprising release of fairly new choral music. Though sometimes considered an experimental composer, whatever this may mean, he is generally better known for his numerous short instrumental pieces cast in a fairly consonant idiom sometimes verging on minimalism. He also scored some success with his Lento for orchestra first performed during the Proms some years ago. He has written many instrumental miniatures for various instrumental combinations, including pieces for accordion, his own instrument.

Though he has also written some vocal music, he may not generally be associated with choral music. The present release offers a quite wide ranging survey of his choral output of which the most ambitious piece is Flight of Song of 1996. In the first movement Skempton somewhat looks back at his experimental years (the very beginning of this movement is some sort of collage sung almost at random), though the other movements and the other pieces are much in the same vein as his instrumental miniatures. However these short pieces are really well done, fairly simple, tuneful. To Bethlem did they go (1995) is a delightful carol that could become quite popular at Christmas time.

Judith Weir is a very distinguished composer with a considerable output in almost every genre and she has written a number of choral pieces. Her carol Illuminare, Jerusalem (1985) is fairly well-known and has already been recorded. Ascending into Heaven (1983) sets a long Latin text and, though played without break, falls into three vocally differentiated sections, the last of which ends softly high up in the air. Fine as it is, I find that the Two Human Hymns (1995) are much finer pieces. The first hymn sets Herbert's Love, also set by Vaughan Williams in his Five Mystical Songs, whereas the second is a setting of Henry King's sic Vita. Weir's Two Human Hymns are, as far as I am concerned, one of the finest pieces in this collection.

Jonathan Harvey has written a good deal of choral music throughout his career. Some of his large-scale choral pieces, e.g. Forms of Emptiness and Lauds are already available on CD (ASV CD DCA 917). The present release has three shorter works of great beauty: Thou mastering me God (1989), God is our Refuge (1986) and the undated The Tree which are all fine examples of what Harvey may achieve with comparatively simple means.

Tippett's Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (1963) is better known though it may still not be as popular as it should. Tippett's approach is quite personal and his setting is full of arresting ideas, such as the opening trumpet fanfare in the Magnificat, whereas the Nunc Dimittis is somewhat simpler, more straightforward.

This is a particularly enterprising release of unfamiliar choral music written over the last twenty years or so. All the works are immaculately, affectionately sung. Matthew Steynor's playing is superb throughout. A most welcome release and I, for one, hope that similar collections will soon be recorded by the same forces.

Hubert Culot


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