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Judith BINGHAM (b.
1952) Salt in the Blood(1995) [20.40] (1, 3) The Darkness is no Darkness (1993) [8.05] (1,
2) First Light (2001) [10.22] (1, 3) The Snows Descend (1997) [6.45] (3) The Secret Garden (2004) [21.58] (1, 2)
Fine Arts Brass (3)
BBC Symphony Chorus/Stephen Jackson (1)
rec. 7-8 May 2005, BBC Maida Vale Studios; 21
August 2004, live, BBC Proms (Garden) NAXOS 8.570346 [67.50]
a composer Judith Bingham’s teachers included Alan Bush and
Eric Fenby. As a singer she was a member of the BBC Singers
from 1983 to 1996. She has written eleven works for the BBC
Singers and became their Associate Composer at the end of
On this disc the BBC Singers bigger, voluntary brother,
the BBC Symphony Chorus, has recorded a programme of Bingham’s
Salt in the Blood was inspired by hearing the Henry Wood Sea Songs at
the Proms; Bingham uses a sequence of sea chanties and hornpipes
to tell a story based on an idea from John
Masefield’s Sea Superstitions. Bingham’s piece is about a quarrel between
two sailors over who is the better dancer, the quarrel leads
to death and a ghostly conclusion. The piece features four
traditional sea chanties and three invented horn-pipes. Bingham
wrote many of the words of the chanties, so that they tell
the story in the way she wants. Through this structure she
has threaded fragments of the Beaufort Scale, extracts of
diaries and log books, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and her own words.
The result is enchanting
and involving with the invented horn-pipes, played by the
brass, mixing well with the traditional chanties. The BBC
Symphony Chorus bring to the piece involvement, enthusiasm
and technical ability which means that the story is well
told in a vivid manner. Bingham’s music is extremely well
put over. I would have liked better diction from the choir.
But this is something which applies to all the choral items
on the disc and may be down to the recording rather than
The second piece on the disc sheds a fascinating light
on S.S. Wesley’s Thou
Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace.
Darkness is No Darkness takes
fragments of Wesley’s piece, both music and lyrics, to re-work
them into something new, refracting Wesley through Bingham’s
own music. Bingham selected the fragments of Wesley’s piece
because she felt that some of the harmonies were unusual
when used in isolation. The piece is immediately followed
by Wesley’s original, giving us the ability to compare and
First Light, again for chorus and
a poem by Martin Shaw about the incarnation. The poem is
densely mystical, but Bingham’s exploration of this
mystical nature of the incarnation manages to be questioning
and approachable without ever seeming to approach the complex
density of the words. This is Bingham’s real gift in choral
music, the ability to say complex things in a manner which
neither looks down on the listener nor belittles the subject
It starts from nothing and builds towards the ecstatic;
musically the piece contains the echoes of Byzantine church
music and bells that Bingham heard whilst she was in Greece.
The Snows Descend is a brief work for brass
ensemble which is a paraphrase of Bingham’s choral work Gleams of a Remoter World.
The original choral piece sets words from Shelley’s Mont Blanc and I did wonder whether it would have made sense to
have included the choral piece on the disc as well. But even
on its own, The Snows Descend is a fascinating work.
The last piece - The Secret Garden - is the longest and, in many
ways, the most complex. It was a 2004 BBC Proms commission for
BBC Symphony Chorus. The subject matter came about after
Bingham started thinking about the Garden of Eden after Adam
and Eve left. The text involves references to Linnaeus’s
sexual descriptions of plants, the Adam Tree or Tree of Knowledge
which stood in Qurna, Iraq until it was destroyed in the
Iran-Iraq war and inspiration from the BBC Series, The
Private World of Plants.
The text is essentially a poem by Bingham herself, though
the printed libretto includes superscriptions from suitable
Biblical quotes as well. Musically the piece is in the form
of a French suite, inspired by the 18th century world of Linnaeus, though Bingham
wears this form lightly and the visitor could easily pass
by without realising the exact form of the piece. Writing
for the newly restored Albert Hall organ, she includes a
substantial organ part including a solo movement describing
the synergy between plants and insects.
The piece is approachable but needs some work. It responds
to repeated listenings as you allow yourself to be subsumed
into Bingham’s world. The BBC Symphony Chorus and Thomas
Trotter perform the piece admirably and I must praise them
highly. But there were moments, when I wondered what the
piece would sound like if sung by a smaller, less well-upholstered
choir. I would like to hear it sung by a group with a leaner,
more vivid tone. But that is to nit-pick and I will happily
return to this performance again and again. The recording
is all the more impressive for being live. Essentially this
is a transcription of the BBC Proms broadcast. We could wish
that the BBC could re-cycle more of their contemporary music
Proms broadcasts in this way.
Conductor Stephen Jackson is also the Director of the
BBC Symphony Chorus and so has had the dual responsibility
for training the chorus and conducting the performances for
the recording. The results are admirable and the disc is
a fine showpiece for the talents of Jackson and his chorus.
Judith Bingham has not always been well represented
on disc and it is good to hear such a generous selection
of her choral music in these fine performances.
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