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Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
Salt in the Blood (1995) [20:40]
The Darkness Is No Darkness-Segue-S.S. Wesley (1810-76) Thou Wilt Keep Him (1993) [8:05]
First Light (2001) [10:22]
The Snows Descend (1997) [6:45]
The Secret Garden (2004) [21:58]
BBC Symphony Chorus/Stephen Jackson
Thomas Trotter (organ)
Fine Arts Brass
rec. BBC Maida Vale Studios, London, 7-8 May 2005 (Salt in the Blood, The Darkness Is No Darkness, First Light and The Snows Descend); live, BBC Proms, 21 August 2004 (The Secret Garden). DDD
NAXOS 8.570346 [67:50]

At one level it is entirely fitting that this much belated first complete CD devoted to Judith Bingham’s music should focus on her works for choir. It is often said that choral music forms the backbone of Bingham’s output and it is certainly true that her skilful and idiomatic writing for voices is drawn from personal first-hand experience. She was a member of the BBC Symphony Chorus for a number of years before taking the decision to devote herself entirely to composition.

To take her choral music in isolation however is to risk neglecting the versatility that Bingham’s broader catalogue of compositions demonstrates. Ranging from orchestral music on the largest scale in Chartres, to ensemble, brass band, chamber and solo works, Bingham is one of the most flexible composers at work on the British music scene today. As if to prove the point it is anticipated that a CD devoted to her solo piano music will be released later this year. 

Her facility in writing for brass has also been a hallmark of her output and there are several works for brass band, brass ensemble and solo brass instruments. One such work for brass band, Prague, achieved a certain - and unjustified - notoriety for its “modern” idiom in the band world when it was selected as the test piece for the annual round of the Regional Brass Band Championship contests in 2004.

Naxos has combined the best of both worlds with this disc showcasing several of Bingham’s most successful choral works. It includes two with brass accompaniment and two with organ. There’s also one for brass ensemble alone that appropriately draws its material from another Bingham choral work, Gleams of a Remoter World.

Dating from 1993, The Darkness Is No Darkness is the earliest of the works on the disc. It takes as its starting point S. S. Wesley’s hymn, “Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace”. In her own informative sleeve-notes the composer explains that whilst playing through the hymn on the piano she noticed that a number of Wesley’s chords were unusual when played in isolation. The piece could therefore be thought of as a contemporary realisation of the Wesley with the more unusual harmonies rewoven into Bingham’s own distinctive harmonic sound-world, before segueing into the Wesley itself. 

First Light was written for the Waynflete Singers in 2001. On numerous occasions - as in The Secret Garden and Salt in the Blood - Bingham has set her own words. In this case however she turned to a friend, the poet Martin Shaw, to write a poem dealing with the mysteries of the Incarnation. Of all the works here this is the most intense; impressively powerful in its exploration of the poem’s deeply searching subject matter. It is underpinned thematically by a series of notes the composer drew from the carillon of Athens Cathedral, opposite which she had stayed around the time of the work’s composition.

If ever evidence were needed of Bingham’s ability to cast a spell over her audience, Salt in the Blood and The Secret Garden are particularly potent examples. The two works also share the common ground of having been written to commission for the Proms and premiered at late night concerts in the Royal Albert Hall. This reviewer was fortunate enough to be present at both premieres. The combination of Bingham’s supreme skill in writing for voices, allied with music that leaves a lasting and haunting impression, succeeded in captivating the audience in the hall in a way that few other contemporary composers can emulate. 

Salt in the Blood is a nautical ghost story; the tale of two Norwegian sailors who become embroiled in a fatal quarrel over who was the better dancer, as told by John Masefield in his Sea Superstitions. Scored for chorus and brass, Bingham tells the story against a backdrop of traditional sea shanties, interspersed with her own “hornpipes” and texts drawn from sources as diverse as the Beaufort Scale and Bram Stoker’s Dracula; all of which are bound together by the composer’s own verse. From its eerily mist-shrouded opening, through which the first strains of the shanty, Whisky Johnny, are heard as if floating across the water, Bingham creates a palpable sense of atmosphere that draws the listener in and doesn’t let go until the final sounds slowly disappear into the mist once again. 

In the case of The Secret Garden it is the work’s live first performance at the Proms that is committed to disc here. The recording coming off very well when one considers the extraneous audience noises that can so often detract from live Prom recordings. Subtitled Botanical Fantasy, the work stems from the composer’s pondering on the Garden of Eden following Adam and Eve’s departure as well as “the central image” of the synergy between moths and orchids that Bingham became aware of through the BBC TV series The Private World of Plants. It was however the Swedish botanist Linnaeus and his descriptions of the sexual behaviour of plants that drew the composer to the eighteenth century and the decision to cast the piece in the form of a five movement French suite.

In comparison to Salt in the Blood, it is a very different sound-world that the composer creates here, yet no less magical in its atmosphere or inherent sense of musical drama. Thomas Trotter has been associated with Bingham’s music for some time and gave the first performance of her Ancient Sunlight on the organ of Symphony Hall, Birmingham shortly after the instrument’s belated completion a couple of years ago. There is a strong sense here of the composer writing to his considerable strengths, in a virtuosic part that Trotter dispatches with obvious brilliance. 

Although it has been a long time in coming, this first Judith Bingham disc does the composer proud in first rate performances of some of her most characteristic and memorable music. The BBC Symphony Chorus under Stephen Jackson are beyond reproach and it is pleasing that the excellent Fine Arts Brass get their deserved moment in the limelight in The Snows Descend. Enthusiasts of Judith Bingham’s music will not want to be without this disc but for those who usually shy away from contemporary fare, this is real music that makes a real impression and is well worth exploring. 

Christopher Thomas

see also Interview with Judith Bingham 

British Composers on Naxos page



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