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
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
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
of serious choral repertoire and admirers of excellent ensemble
singing will be well pleased with this disc.