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Landscape and Time
Richard Rodney BENNETT (b.1936)
The Seasons of his Mercies (1992) [6.39]
John McCABE (b.1939)
Scenes in America Deserta (1986) [14.57]
Cyrillus KREEK (1889-1962)
Taaveti laulud [12:51]
Jackson HILL (b.1941)
Remembered Love (2004) [8.27]
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b.1934)
House of Winter (1986) [11.52]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Rakastava (1893) [7.46]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1967)
Esti Dal (1938) [3.17]
Bob CHILCOTT (b.1955)
Even Such is Time (1993) [2.50] *
The King’s Singers, Andrew Swait (treble)*
rec. St Andrew’s Toddington, UK, 9-11 May, 19-20 June 2006. DDD
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD090 [68.44]
 


Signum continues to show the serious side of the King’s Singers with this wonderful a capella album. As with their previous releases on Signum (see, for example, review), the programme concept of this King’s Singers album is an interesting one. The songs assembled here explore the notion that all of us are shaped by our own time and place in the world.
 
Four of the pieces were written for the King's Singers by contemporary British composers. Two of these, which set texts by English Renaissance men on the subject of eternity, open and close the disc.
 
Richard Rodney Bennett’s The Seasons of his Mercies, a setting of John Donne, is a masterstroke of choral writing. Rapturous close harmony builds and ebbs with Donne’s text, which contrasts the cyclical seasons of the natural world that God has created with the everlasting seasons of his mercies. Suddenly the harmonies disappear and tenor Paul Phoenix declaims in a fascinating unaccompanied solo that “If some King of the earth have so large an extent of dominion … as that he hath Winter and Summer together in his Dominions … much more hath God mercy and judgement together”. The rapt harmonies return, build and darken until they climax on the words “now God comes to thee”, and then fade away once more.
 
The final track on the album, by former King’s Singer Bob Chilcott, is a beautiful miniature which sets Sir Walter Raleigh’s short poem of resignation and hope, penned before his impending execution. Repetition of lyrics and melodic lines creates a sense of timelessness, which brightens in its conclusion as Andrew Swait’s clean, pure treble voice rises thrice with the words “The Lord shall raise me up”.
 
The other two British commissions are more time and place specific. Scenes in America Deserta is a textbook lesson in contemporary word-painting. On first listening I could not get past the cleverness of the writing actually to enjoy the music, but the more I listen, the more I like it. It is a long work, but falls into five contrasting sections, each depicting a different place, mood and emotion. The first section begins with a wordless evocation of the howling winds in the desert places which slides into a languid word painting of a heat haze. The second section depicts with its rhythms the movement of bicycles. Plaintive cries for water, the word distended and distorted over wide intervals, contrast with resolved rapture at the idea of the giving and receiving of water in the fourth section. McCabe’s music explains all of this far more eloquently than I can.
 
Peter Maxwell Davies’ House of Winter is a work in four continuous movements. The texts are Christmas poems by Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown, and Maxwell Davies succeeds through his music in capturing the frozen stillness of the words and their mood.
 
The fifth and final King’s Singers commission on this disc is Remembered Love by American composer Jackson Hill. A haunting setting of a seventh century Japanese poem, it is full of pentatonic figures, long vocal glissandi and a little light percussion - presumably played by the King’s Singers themselves.
 
Kodály's Esti Dal and Sibelius' Rakastava are time and place specific in a different sense. Each reaches into the resources of the folk music and poetry of each composer's native land. The achingly beautiful Esti Dal seems to be popping up everywhere all of a sudden. Tenebrae included it on their most recent disc, also on Signum Classics (see review). It also appears on the King's Singers recent DVD.
 
This performance of Kodály's folk-inspired lullaby, more closely miked than that on their DVD, is even more rapt and restful, with the lower voices of the group setting down a soft bed of harmony upon which David Hurley floats his counter-tenor melody.
 
Rakastava is best known to music-lovers in its third version of 1912 for strings and percussion. The version performed here seems to be the 1898 version for mixed chorus, though the mix here is entirely male. The singing is sensitive and rather lovely, and Sibelians will be pleased.
 
At the heart of the disc is the four movement Taaveti laulud by Cyrillus Kreek. This is wonderful music and a wonderful centrepiece for this programme. Kreek was a key figure in 20th century Estonian music. In seeking a uniquely Estonian sound in spite of Soviet demands for socialist realism, he delves into both Estonian folk idiom and into the modal sounds of church tradition. His texts are the timeless psalms of David, though the psalms are not set complete. Various verses have been selected and reordered to chart a complete course of thought.
 
The first song is a mournful, pleading setting of selected verses from Psalm 22, which begins “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”. I wonder if Kreek’s plight under the Soviets gave this psalm special meaning for him. The next song is brighter and, frankly, mesmerising. Robin Tyson’s mellow counter-tenor solo gives way to the brighter tone of David Hurley who sings Hallelujahs. The lower voices remain in the background as support until the final amens. The third song returns to the pleading tone of the first with counter-tenor and baritone in unison octaves apart. There is wonderfully rapt and subtle singing here. The final song brings consolation and quiet hope.
 
The King’s Singers sang the second and fourth of these songs in the concert captured on their recent DVD. In my review, I glossed over them as well sung but not particularly memorable. In hindsight, I was wrong on the latter point. This is wonderfully memorable music. The second song Õnnis on Inimene in particular is now firmly embedded in my musical memory, and that is just where I want it.
 
The presentation of this CD is superb. John McCabe, composer of the second of the pieces on the programme, contributes an introductory note on the album’s intertwined themes of landscape and time, and the following programme notes (signed off by the King’s Singers but, I suspect, written mostly by Robin Tyson) analyse each piece in turn, dealing with its context and thematic content, but eschewing dry descriptions of the mechanics of the music. Full texts and English translations are included, as is some biographical information on the performers.
 
Lovers of serious choral repertoire and admirers of excellent ensemble singing will be well pleased with this disc.
 
Tim Perry
 

 

 



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