Not having any desire to distract you from the excellence
of the orchestral playing the accomplishments and inspiration on display
here represent English choral singing at its best. The smoothness, unanimity
of enunciation, and ear-endearing luminosity of the singing resonates
long after the disc is out of the CD player.
The modestly radiant Bridge
setting of Thomas à Kempis represents an ecstatic-contemplative
path that the composer seems not to have taken again. The quality of
the writing is predictive of Delius's Requiem and Song of
the High Hills. This is not its first recording. The piece has been
available on a Pearl LP (never reissued on CD?) although this is now
long gone. There the conductor was Howard Williams. That was preceded
by a BBC studio version with the baritone Michael George, the BBC Singers
and the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by the unjustly forgotten Ashley
Lawrence - the hero of many a British music revival on radio. The BBC
broadcast came and went on 7 September 1979. Neither that broadcast
nor the Pearl come close to the honeyed introspection of this ClassicO
Unlike Patrick Hadley (who deserves much better) Howells
has been done reasonable justice on disc. Chandos and EMI are the principal
champions. Even so, until now there has been no recording of his Sine
Nomine. This work again lifts us to the lofty heights through the
use of vocalisation by two soloists and choir. The vocalisation is on
the ‘o’ sound in the word 'dove'. This is a work of raptly angelic contemplation
with the twists and turns of harmony and melody looking towards Vaughan
Williams' Pastoral Symphony. The writing has one looking into
the glorious light of the sun shining in benevolence.
Full sung texts are reproduced in the sensibly presented
booklet. The font size is practical and the writing courtesy of Lewis
Foreman, ClassicO's guiding light for the British Symphonic Collection,
The Elgar, Howells and Purcell are world premiere recordings
as is the wont of this ClassicO series. The orchestral version of the
Dyson appears for the first time on disc. The piano version is on SOMM.
Dyson served in France during the Great War.
His little manual on grenade fighting became a vocational classic. The
Blacksmiths is a unique piece which sets a Middle English poem of
the 14th century. It is a work of grim little rhythmic cells, wails
and grimaces, impacts and percussive shots. The writing reminds me a
little of Walton's Belshazzar but also, and most vividly, of
Bliss's The City Arming from Morning Heroes.
Psalm is the earliest piece on the disc. Though praised by Elgar
it made no headway at the time and the orchestral score was lost in
1920. The composer had to re-orchestrate the work all over again in
1945. It has been recorded before - though never on CD. The first commercial
recording came out during the early 1970s on a CBS LP which also contained
the English Suite No. 5 and the gloriously concentrated and grittily
embittered Symphonia Brevis (No. 22). While there are Elgarian
elements in this it reminds me of more of Kodály's Psalmus
Hungaricus and the patriotic cantatas of Sibelius. The work includes
some lovingly rounded quiet singing - full of the sort of gentle majesty
you hear in Walton's much later Coronation Te Deum.
Now to the two Elgar pieces. First the orchestration.
Elgar was no stranger to arranging the works of other composers. Bach's
organ music was one of his marques. The Purcell piece has its grandeur
amplified and unsurprisingly is extremely effective in the massed choral
passages. The rather glutinous baritone is admirably steady of tone
production. With Proud Thanksgiving dates from 1920 and is an
abridgement of the first part of The Spirit of England triptych.
Essentially it is a grandiloquent cortège with the grimly funereal
tread of the parts of Elgar’s Second Symphony. The choral singing touches
on that of Brahms' German Requiem. It shows a surprising tenderness
which I more naturally link with Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem
- not a connection I expected to make.
Those who, like me, insist on looking a gift-horse
in the mouth might wish for something other than the Purcell and Elgar.
This disc would have been crystalline perfection if only it had included
the Balfour Gardiner April and Philomela and Constant
Lambert's poetic brevity Dirge from Cymbeline. As it is the disc
will be guaranteed a much wider currency by the two Elgarian connections.
This is not to be missed by fans of lyrical British
choral music. Those who appreciate their Vaughan Williams and Delius
will not be disappointed - richly rewarded in fact.
British Symphonic Collection