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Songs of Springtime
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Songs of Springtime (1933) [13’54"]; ‘Weep Ye No More, Sad Fountains’* (1922) [2’27"]; ‘Gather Ye Rosebuds’* (1924) [1’11"]; ‘Robin Hood Borne on his Bier’* (1923) [2’59"]; ‘The Jolly Carter’ (1949) [2’06"]; ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy’ (1949) [3’00]; ‘Irish Elegy’ arr. Desmond Ratcliffe*(1948/1955) [2’30"]
Arthur BENJAMIN (1893-1960)
Three Mystical Songs* (1925) [5’14"]
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
‘Open Thy Gates’ (1931) [2’16"]; ‘Night’* (1911) [2’11"]; ‘In the Wilderness’ (1922) [3’54"]
Leslie HEWARD (1897-1943)
‘The Witches’ Sabbath’* (1919) [6’09]
* first recording
City Chamber Choir of London/Stephen Jones
Recorded in the Vestry Hall, London College of Music 28 – 29 October 1995

This is a most enterprising release on the British Music Society’s own label, not least because it includes several premiere recordings. Even the music which has been recorded before is scarcely well known but all of it is well worth the attention of collectors. It is, I think, not without significance that all four composers represented here were pupils of Stanford from whom, it would seem, they learned much about effective choral writing.

The City Chamber Choir of London is an ensemble which I have not encountered. At the time of this recording the group comprised seven sopranos, five (female) altos, six tenors and five basses. I don’t know if the singers are young but they sound to be. Their singing is fresh but it has to be said that the voices do sound a trifle immature and, sometimes, pale. At least as recorded the ensemble is soprano-dominated. The inner parts are, frankly, often too reticent and in particular I would have wished for a firmer bass line. I must admit that I think the engineers could have helped a bit more. The sound is rather matter of fact and there is not much ambience around the voices. The sound gives the impression that the choir has been recorded a bit too close to the microphones in a rather small hall. In short, a slightly warmer, more resonant acoustic would have done wonders for the choral sound, I suspect. As it is, the soprano sound occasionally has a bit of an edge to it which is especially noticeable when the singers are under pressure in louder passages such as the harmonically challenging opening of ‘Robin Hood Borne on his Bier’ (track 10, 0’09")

The music which the choir performs is very interesting. Moeran in particular emerges as a most evocative and effective writer for SATB chorus. His Songs of Springtime comprises seven settings of Elizabethan poetry. The moods range from the lively ‘Good Wine’ (track 6) to the exquisite, grave beauty of his setting of ‘To Daffodils’ (track 7). This last, together with ‘Love is a Sickness’ (track 4) strike me as being the best and the deepest of the set. These songs may well be familiar to collectors from the Finzi Singers’ 1992 recording for Chandos (CHAN 9182). It may be unfair to compare the present recording with one by such an expert ensemble. However, I feel obliged to report that the Finzi Singers’ account strikes me as superior in every respect. They are much more sympathetically recorded by Chandos but need no help from the engineers to produce a much better blended and more balanced sound. I also feel that their performance is more subtle and detailed.

However, there is much to enjoy in the City Chamber Choir’s account of the Songs of Springtime which is committed and fresh, as are the remaining performances on the disc. I was particularly struck by their devoted reading of ‘Weep Ye No More, Sad Fountains’ (track 8) and the two folk song arrangements, skilfully done by Moeran, both come across vivaciously. ‘Robin Hood Borne on His Bier’ (track 10) is a powerful, almost dark composition. Ideally it probably needs a bit more vocal strength than is in evidence here and the taxing opening undoubtedly stretches the singers to the full. However, Stephen Jones and his singers deserve much gratitude for committing a song like this to disc and making it more widely accessible.

A more serious tone is also evident in the three songs by Arthur Benjamin. There is a little confusion in the documentation as to whether they are correctly entitled "Pieces" or "Songs" – I believe the latter is correct. These are eloquent settings, displaying a sensitive response by Benjamin to his chosen texts and they are well sung. The third of the set, ‘He is the Lonely Greatness’ (track 16) is particularly effective.

Edgar Bainton is also represented here by three songs. ‘Open Thy Gates’ (track 17), a setting of Robert Herrick, might easily be mistaken for an anthem. However one chooses to characterise it, the piece is a good one, as is ‘Night’ (track 18), a fine and atmospheric song to words by William Blake. I think, however, that Bainton’s limitations are shown a little in the Robert Graves setting, ‘In the Wilderness’ (track 19). Much of the piece impressed me but when the words call for more tension in the middle of the poem, starting at the words "The mail of dread device" (1’24") Bainton doesn’t quite seem to have "enough in the tank."

The final piece in the programme came as something of a revelation. I knew of Leslie Heward’s reputation, of course, as a fine conductor (his pioneering recording of Moeran’s G Minor Symphony is a marvellous document and an unsurpassed reading of that fine symphony). However, I was unaware that he had also been a composer. ‘The Witches’ Sabbath’ (track 20) is an early composition. It is a daring, not to say strange, choice for a partsong, setting an extract from Ben Jonson’s The Masque of Queens (1609). Heward’s is a virtuosic composition for five part choir (SSATB) which further sub-divides into ten parts towards the end. It sounds to make fearsome demands on the singers but Stephen Jones and his choir attack it with relish and do the piece proud. The music is highly illustrative and is not easy to get into. However, it repays repeated listening and I count it a fascinating discovery.

The choice of repertoire on this CD is extremely enterprising. It may be a little short on playing time but the interest of the musical content is compensation. John Talbot contributes excellent notes which are enthusiastic and informative. All the texts are provided. The performances are very creditable if not quite of the highest standards (we’re spoiled these days by a profusion of excellent chamber choirs.)

In summary, this is a valuable release which will be of great interest to collectors of choral discs and self-recommending to lovers of 20th century English music. It seems highly unlikely that many of the pieces recorded here will appear in alternative versions so those interested in this repertoire should not hesitate.

John Quinn

The British Music Society



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