> BEDFORD My Mother, My sister and I CPVP003CD [PS]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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David BEDFORD (1937 -)
"My Mother, My Sister and I" - Cantata for 3 Sopranos and Tape (1999)

Lyrics by Allison Powell
Evelyn Tubb, Jacqueline Barron, Mary Wiegold
Synthesizer programming by the Composer
Voiceprint Group: Classicprint CPVP003CD


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I’m sorely tempted, I really am. The wicked little demon sitting on my left shoulder is doing its little tank because I’m not going make this CD an excuse to launch a tirade against the wilder excesses of Political Correctness. Oh, I could if I wanted to - after all, it’s arguable that PC was born out of women’s suffrage, and this cantata is about Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters, Christabel and Sylvia - but I won’t because they were "then", and PC came much later. I can’t resist one sly little dig, though. You’d have thought that, by now, one of today’s growing legion of women composers would have grabbed this subject with both hands. How come, then, it’s actually (dare I say?) a mere man who is first out of the blocks?

According to the account given in the booklet (which appears to have been written by the composer), in the beginning was the word, and the word was that "all women should have the vote", a precept which inspired and united mother and daughters. I suppose that it would have been easy enough for David Bedford to celebrate this: small beginning, mighty struggle, and triumphant conclusion. However, he opted instead to focus on the developing divergences that eroded and finally sundered the women’s initially close bond, and in so doing found a far more fruitful musical pasture.

The opening March of the W.S.P.U. (Women’s Social and Political Union), sounding more than a little like that Choral-Society-For-All-Causes in the Gershwins’ Strike Up The Band, sets the scene in a blaze of untrammelled affirmation, Emmeline (Jacqueline Barron) proclaiming her daughters as ideal leaders of the Cause, and elder daughter Christabel (Mary Wiegold) dedicating herself unswervingly thereto. Such is the fervour of the moment that full import of the words of Sylvia (Evelyn Tubb) almost eludes the listener - she is just as fervent, but sings of "justice" momentarily in rather more general terms, a very neat bit of work by lyricist Allison Powell.

In the second scene, Sylvia Visits Christabel in Paris, the sheen comes off the daughters’ relationship in a big way. Christabel had scuttled off to Paris to avoid arrest and imprisonment, which was supposed to be one of the Cause’s main weapons. Christabel counters Sylvia’s indignation by arguing that she "cannot lead from a prison cell", holding that the disgusting conditions and force-feeding of hunger strikers are for martyrs and the common soldiery rather than the officer class (who clearly can lead the battle just as effectively from the comfort and safety of a Paris dress-shop). Bedford underpins the rift by counterposing a dizzy waltz for "Christabel in Paris" with righteous operatic recitative for "Sylvia from London", contrasted materials which nevertheless fit together like glove and hand when the moment comes.

Violent loud chords burst in, solemnising the march theme (a leitmotif for The Cause): over a churning abyss of sound, Lament for the Martyrs lists the sufferings of several women, a grim reminder of how extraordinarily brave they were, regardless of whether you agree with their methods (I’ll tell you what, though, these days the authorities would never get away with what they did. back then!). Significantly, the list ends with Emmeline and Sylvia, but no mention of Christabel, the general who leads from the rear.

The Letter Trio illuminates the serious rift developing between her mother, her sister and Sylvia, who is diversifying into the rights of the disadvantaged. Her elders disapproved, ostensibly because they thought it diluted Sylvia’s dedication to The Cause - and after what we learnt in the previous two scenes, we can understand the friction this must have wrought! However, it’s worse than that. The patter-song of those who might be petitioned reveals them all to be influential dignitaries, whilst Sylvia’s desperate song reveals her commitment to the plight of the poor: the divide is also between political Right and Left.

The Outbreak of the Great War drives a terminal wedge into the damaged relationship. Counterposing the protagonists in the same way as the Letter Trio, this brief scene shows Emmeline and Christabel right up there with the "Your Country Needs YOU!" brigade, and Sylvia appalled at the prospect, not only of the unimaginable suffering it will bring, but also because now it seems that the others are "diversifying". The nevertheless regretful severance leads directly into the final scene, Sylvia Looks Back on the Past. Her sad soliloquy veers from bitter realisation that, for her right-wing mother and sister, "Votes for Women really meant Votes for Ladies", to aching regret at the loss of what they originally shared: the words "Something so good should never end" are repeated endlessly, receding into the distance.

The music - which is tonal, tuneful, tough and tender - and the words - which pack a lot, in terms of poetry, import and punch - together forge an image of powerful and impressive immediacy. The libretto is not printed in the CD booklet, which I for one found unfortunate as, while I can hear most of the words, some phrases are totally opaque to my ears. Maybe your ears will fare rather better, but it seems a bit penny-pinching and you have to listen to the work a couple of times to be sure who’s saying what!

Regarding the music, the composer says, though regrettably again not in the CD booklet, "For the accompanying tape, I created an 'orchestra' containing various sounds which I imagined might have been common at the time: a mixture of Salvation Army, brass band and music hall elements. This was the popular music of the day and as an analogue to that the accompanying music also contains elements of modern popular music". This brings tumbling in head over heels several problems which I can sum up in one word: why?

Why, for instance, is there any need for that "analogue"? Sure, this might elicit a feeling of "relevance to today". Or, rather, it might for you, but it doesn’t for me - all I get is a feeling of anachronism, disrupting a narrative which is very, very much of its time. Why did the composer feel the need to "create an ‘orchestra’" using a synthesiser, another anachronistic element? I wouldn’t have minded so much if it had been particularly convincing but, and here I’m being fairly generous, the Paris waltz and some trumpety sounds apart it all sounds like nothing more than an electronic organ and a drum-kit. While we’re at it, why not actually use an electronic organ and a drum-kit, played "live" so to speak? More to the point, why not go for a degree of authenticity demanded by the subject matter, use some real instruments, something on the lines of a beefed-up palm court orchestra? Above all, why do I get this impression of a ha’porth of tar being saved: surely a composer of David Bedford’s standing could have rustled up a few mates to make a real band for the recording?

The recording, ah, yes! Well, it sounds OK, as far as it goes. The ladies’ voices (let’s be thankful that they weren’t synthesised!) come across admirably, but there is no acoustic space around them. I get the feeling that the "backing track" has never seen the light of day, that it went straight from the tape machine to the mixer, and from there straight to the singers’ headphones. In the music, by which I mean the substance of the music, Bedford seems to some slight degree to be drawing on the model of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, certainly as far as the aggression of the opening song and the lingering fading away of the last song are concerned. However, where Mahler engineered his effect through subtle manipulation of his forces, here it’s more like an electronic version of that door closing at the end of Holst’s Planets Suite, or the faded fag ends of countless "pop" ditties since the late 1950s. When the music and the voice fade towards the horizon, we aren’t left in an empty room, but in a blank one.

Which brings me to those three ladies. I have but one (more?) cavil. Actually, it’s two, but they happen at the same time! In the closing repetitions of "Something so good should never end", Evelyn Tubb keeps putting in some of those little yodellings that seem to pass for ad lib grace notes in the world of the modern pop diva. Bad move? I think so, as it interrupts the (surely intended) mesmeric effect. The other possible bad move is a rare slip of the pen by Allison Powell, putting the words "never" and "end" together. Either they come out as "neve - Rend", or (as here) they come out sounding like the singer is trying to avoid singing "neve-Rend"! But, I said these were cavils, and they are cavils. All three of them have lovely voices, dig into their roles like troopers, and deliver utterly convincing performances alive to every last nuance of both words and music - no emotional stone (and there are plenty of those here!) is left unturned. Let me tell you something else: too many female singers turn me right off with their wobbly tops (vocally speaking, at any rate!), but here the dreaded vibrato is kept entirely within reasonable bounds.

You might have noticed the running time: 26 minutes is hardly packing in the binary digits, is it? This is very much a recording of a piece of music, rather than a CD that contains a programme. You would (well, I would!) expect it to be priced accordingly. Go to amazon.com, and they’ll quote you £11.99, which pans out at, as near as dammit, full price. For that sort of money, they could probably have hired a band, and a wonderful piece of musical drama could have also been a wonderful piece of music.

Paul Serotsky

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