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Howard SKEMPTON (b. 1947)
Chamber Concerto (1995) [5:30] #
Clarinet Quintet (1997) [8:43] #
The Voice of the Spirits (1999) [7:30] *
The Bridge of Fire (2001) [7:04] *
Suite from Delicate (1999) [18:12] #
Roundels of the Year (1992) [7:15] *
Rise up, my Love (2002) [8:35] *
Ben Somewhen (2005) [12:16] #
Birmingham Contemporary Music Group #; Exaudi */James Weeks
rec. St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge, London, 16-17 January 2007 (choral works) and CBSO Centre, Birmingham, 14-15 April 2007 (instrumental works)
Texts included
NMC D135 [76:08]
Experience Classicsonline

Howard Skempton is probably best known as a composer of brief and often deceptively simple instrumental works including a large number of short, at times very short pieces for piano. Some of these were recorded several years ago by John Tilbury (“Well, well, Cornelius” once available on Sony SK 66482). His substantial orchestral work Lento of 1990 – originally released as a single NMC D005 and later re-issued on NMC D032 – came as somewhat of a surprise. More surprisingly still, he recently turned to choral music and – curiously enough – his choral works are generally more extended than his instrumental pieces. I came to know this part of his output when reviewing a Guild CD (“Flight of Song” – GMCD 7213) including a number of his choral works, both small and large. These featured superb and highly idiomatic choral writing and the composer’s often subtle response to word setting. The breadth of words that Skempton sets in the works recorded here is also worth noting: Flecker (The Bridge of Fire), Shelley from Prometheus Unbound (The Voice of the Spirits), John Drinkwater (Roundels of the Year) as well as words from The Song of Solomon (Rise up, my love).
This disc, released to mark Skempton’s sixtieth birthday, encompasses both sides of his music-making in that it includes and juxtaposes instrumental and choral works. Most instrumental pieces recorded here are suites consisting of short movements, sometimes of an almost lapidary quality. For example, the Chamber Concerto (1995) scored for a small mixed ensemble of fifteen players consists of four movements, the whole playing for a little over five minutes, whereas the Clarinet Quintet (1997) is in three movements playing for a little over eight minutes. The longest work here, Suite from Delicate (1999), scored for two cellos and percussion, is again made up of six very short movements, some of them lasting less than one minute. The most recent work Ben Somewhen (the title refers to drawings by Ben Hartley, some of which are reproduced both on the cover and in the insert notes) is a concertino for double bass and ensemble - a lovely, delightful work that has become a favourite of mine.
As already mentioned earlier in this review, the choral works are the longest single items here. James Weeks aptly describes them as “miniatures-writ-large”. All but one are expressed in a single fairly large movement. Rise up, my love (2002) is more like a small-scale cycle of short part-songs. Skempton’s choral writing – in much the same way as his instrumental writing – is deceptively simple. In fact it puts considerable demands on the singers in order to sustain what Weeks rightly describes as “mighty overarching spans”. Moreover, the apparently simple choral writing must nevertheless pose considerable problems of intonation and breath control. The Exaudi singers rise magnificently to the challenge.
This generously filled disc was released to mark Howard Skempton’s sixtieth birthday. It seems to provide a fair appreciation of his achievement. The music is superbly served by immaculate readings that perfectly bring out the many qualities of this music – material that unerringly achieves its aims but without undue fuss. I fully share Gerald Barry’s words as quoted in Oxford Music Now – Summer 2007: “Howard Skempton’s music is like himself, generous, direct and clean”. It is as fine a birthday tribute as a composer might wish, and offers much listening enjoyment throughout.
Hubert Culot


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