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
The British Music Society