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To Music - An anthology of English 20th century choral music
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
All this Night [2:54]
Paul SPICER (b. 1952)
How Love Bleeds (Four Carols for Dark Times) (2003-5) [7:44]
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956)
In the Wilderness [3:46]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
The Scribe (1952) [4:17]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Three Shakespeare Songs (1951) [6:02]
Herbert MURRILL (1909-1952)
O Mistress Mine [1:25]
Cecil ARMSTRONG GIBBS (1989-1960)
Devotion [2:29]; How can the heart forget her? [3:09]
Christopher EDMUNDS (1899-1990)
Blessed are they whose strength is in thee (1942) [2:51]
John JOUBERT (b. 1927)
A Hymne to God the Father (1987) [6:55]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
This have I done for my true love [5:47]
Paul SPICER
Alive* (2005) [5:29]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988)
Crucifixus pro nobis* (1960) [18:35]
George DYSON (1883-1964)
To Music [3:11]
Chamber Choir of Birmingham Conservatoire/Paul Spicer
*David Saint (organ)
rec. 11-12 January 2007, St. Alban’s Church, Balsall Heath, Birmingham. DDD
English texts included
REGENT REGCD274 [74:53]
Experience Classicsonline


Founded 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.
 
Paul 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 Three Shakespeare 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.
 
Some 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.
 
So, 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 choir members.
 
An 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.
 
The 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.
 
Somewhat 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.
 
The 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. 
 
There 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 the Wilderness. 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, Fair House 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)
 
The 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 piece.
 
And 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.
 
This 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!
 
John Quinn
 


 


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