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To Music - An anthology of English
20th century choral music Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
this Night [2:54] Paul SPICER (b.
How Love Bleeds (Four Carols for Dark Times)
(2003-5) [7:44] Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
the Wilderness [3:46] Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Scribe (1952) [4:17] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Shakespeare Songs (1951) [6:02] Herbert MURRILL (1909-1952)
Mistress Mine [1:25] Cecil ARMSTRONG GIBBS (1989-1960)
[2:29]; How can the heart forget her? [3:09] Christopher EDMUNDS (1899-1990)
are they whose strength is in thee (1942) [2:51] John JOUBERT (b.
A Hymne to God the Father (1987) [6:55] Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
have I done for my true love [5:47] Paul SPICER
(2005) [5:29] Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
pro nobis* (1960) [18:35] George DYSON (1883-1964)
Choir of Birmingham Conservatoire/Paul Spicer
*David Saint (organ)
rec. 11-12 January 2007, St. Alban’s Church, Balsall Heath,
English texts included REGENT REGCD274 [74:53]
in 1886 as the Birmingham School of Music, though its origins
go back as far as 1853, Sir Granville Bantock became the
first salaried Principal of the School in 1900. He is but
one of many famous composers and performers who have studied
or taught there down the years. It became the Birmingham
Conservatoire in 1989. Perhaps it has been somewhat overshadowed
by the music colleges in London and Manchester in the past.
However, in recent years the Conservatoire has established
a strong reputation, as befits a music college in England’s
second city. A recording such as this can only raise the
institution’s profile still further.
Spicer makes clear in his excellent booklet note that this
is a very personal choice of programme and there are many
interesting links. Thus, for example, what an apposite piece
of programming to include a relatively obscure piece – and
a fine one - by Spicer’s teacher, Howells, which was written
in celebration of the 85th birthday of Vaughan
Williams and then to follow it with RVW’s own wondrous ThreeShakespeare
Songs. But that particular chain doesn’t end there. Not
only are we treated to a piece by RVW’s great friend, Holst
but the programme also includes two great rarities by Armstrong
Gibbs, to whom the Three Shakespeare Songs were dedicated.
of the repertoire has rather more personal connotations.
Some of Paul Spicer’s own music is there – and earns its
place by right. The Leighton work also is certainly included
on merit but an interesting sidelight is that Spicer, as
a boy chorister at New College Oxford, took part in the very
first performance of the piece. And, as the author of a forthcoming
biography of Sir George Dyson, it’s wholly appropriate to
finish the programme with a short, delectable work by the
Halifax-born composer. It’s good, too, to find a Birmingham
choir promoting what one might call ‘local’ music in the
shape of pieces by John Joubert, who taught at the city’s
University from 1962 until his early retirement in 1986,
and by Christopher Edmunds, who joined the staff of the Birmingham
School of Music in 1929 and was its Principal from 1945 until
his controversial resignation in 1956.
this is a thoughtfully assembled programme. How good is the
execution? Well, putting my cards on the table, this is one
of the finest choral discs to have come my way in some time.
The choir comprises twenty-four young singers, who have clearly
been prepared scrupulously. But the high degree of preparation
has not in any way dulled the sense of spontaneity. Throughout
the recital the singing is fresh and committed. Blending,
tuning and ensemble are flawless, the balance and clarity
is exemplary and the diction is splendid. Some of the pieces
contain solo passages, all of which are very well taken by
undoubted highlight is the sensitive account of the Vaughan
Williams songs. This is a miraculous set, perhaps the finest
in the English part-song repertoire? The challenging harmonies
of ‘Full Fathom Five’ are confidently enunciated and between
them Paul Spicer and the engineers ensure that the textures
are clear at all times during a wonderfully precise performance.
The opening and close of ‘The cloud-capp’d towers’ is superbly
atmospheric and the grave beauty and the mystery of this
setting is brought out perfectly through some splendidly
controlled singing. Finally, the gossamer lightness of ‘Over
hill, over dale’ is expertly realised.
performance of Holst’s inventive strophic piece is on a par
with that of the Vaughan Williams. I was equally taken with
the confident account of Finzi’s splendid part-song, which
is forthright in appropriate places but also sensitive to
the more subtle passages.
more challenging to the listener are the pieces by Leighton
and by Paul Spicer himself. All the Spicer pieces set poems
by the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas (1913-2000), whose verse clearly
fires this composer’s imagination. The four carols were written
for the Birmingham Bach Choir, of which he is conductor,
and they are impressive. I particularly admired the beautiful
second carol, ‘Nativity’, and even more so the deeply felt ‘Festival’ with
which the set concludes. Tinsel is nowhere to be found in
these thoughtful settings but I think it’s very good to be
reminded that Christmas has a serious side. Alive is
a powerful piece that progresses from a dramatic opening
to a more reflective, quiet ending. It’s very well worth
hearing, especially when it’s given with the total commitment
brought to it by these young singers.
performance of the Leighton work is also a success. Richard
Jeffrey, a member of the choir, takes on the very demanding
solo tenor role and acquits himself well. He’s eloquent in
the opening movement and when he returns, in the third section,
he shows an ability to sing dramatically too. Some may think
that his voice is a touch light at this stage in his career.
I wouldn’t disagree but on this occasion I’ll trade a little
vocal weight for the sensitivity Jeffrey displays. It’s no
surprise that the choir sing their parts well. They’re biting
and vivid in the second section and the third movement, in
which soloist and choir combine, bristles with tension. Praise
too for David Saint’s virtuosity in the crucial organ part.
The a cappella final section, a setting of ‘Drop,
drop, slow tears’ is beautifully balanced.
are much less familiar pieces on the bill too. The Murrill
setting is harmonically cheeky. I don’t recall hearing it
before. Nor was I familiar with Bainton’s In theWilderness.
This sets what Spicer rightly calls a “bleak, but moving” poem
by Robert Graves. It’s beautifully sung here and I think
it’s a fine discovery. I’ve heard the Howells before. It
featured on a 1994 Chandos disc by Spicer and the Finzi Singers
(CHAN9458), which I rather suspect was its first recording.
The very opening phrase, “What lovely things Thy hand hath
made” sounds to me to pre-echo a phrase from Howells’ masterly Take
him, earth, for cherishing (1963). The whole piece is
quite gorgeous and a very fine birthday tribute to the man
Howells called ‘Uncle Ralph’. The Armstrong Gibbs items aren’t
in this league but they’re by no means negligible. Incidentally, Devotion uses
the same words as Roger Quilter’s great solo song, FairHouse
of Joy. If I may correct a small slip in the booklet,
the text for Devotion is ascribed to our old friend,
Anon. However, I think I’m right in saying that the author
was Tobias Hume (?c.1569-1645)
two “Birmingham” pieces both merit their inclusion. The Edmunds
anthem sets words from Psalm 84. It was written for a wedding
in 1942 – though it doesn’t really feel like a wedding piece – but
wartime exigencies prevented it being performed at the ceremony
and, sadly, it was not heard until after the composer’s death.
This very choir gave its first performance just last year
and it’s regrettable that this thoughtful, rather beautiful
little piece has lain unsung for over four decades. This
recording makes amends. The Joubert was commissioned, at
Paul Spicer’s instigation, to mark the composer’s sixtieth
birthday in 1987 and it’s pleasing that it should have received
its first recording, with the composer present, during his
eightieth birthday year. The text is a magnificent poem by
the English metaphysical poet, John Donne. As Spicer comments
it “packs a very powerful punch”. The music is very intense
and darkly powerful and it clearly makes significant demands
on the choir. Those demands are triumphantly surmounted here.
The singing is superb and highly committed and Spicer and
his choir give a performance that’s wholly worthy of a distinguished
so to Dyson and his gentle, radiant Herrick setting, previously
unknown to me. Beautifully delivered, it makes for a touching envoi at
the end of a superbly executed, varied programme.
is a splendid disc in every way. The repertoire is of great
interest and has been shrewdly chosen to hold the listener’s
interest and to showcase every facet of the choir. As I’ve
made clear, I hope, the performances are marvellous. The
documentation is excellent and so is the recorded sound.
I’m keen to hear more on disc from this fine choir but for
now this recital earns a resounding Bravo!
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