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Brian KNOWLES (b.1946)
Poetry Serenade

Written in March [3:08] 1
Lord of the Winds [3:02] 4, 5
He Wishes for The Cloths of Heaven [3:52] 2
I Remember, I Remember [3:49] 3
The Daffodils [3:19] 1
The Soldier [4:35] 4, 5
Night Mail [2:52] 6
Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep
[4:21] 2, 6
She Walks in Beauty [3:32] 3
In Memoriam [2:22] 5
I Sing of A Maiden [2:30] 1, 6
Weathers [1:35] 2
Come, Sweetheart, Come [2:35], 1,3
Crossing the Bar [3:49] 4, 5
The Lake Isle of Innisfree [3:07] 3
A Child’s Sleep [2:29] 1
Everyone Sang [2:06] 5
Love Came Down At Christmas [2:10] 1,2,3,4
1 Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano); 2 Juliette Pochin (mezzo); 3 John Christos (tenor); 4 Nick Garrett (baritone); 5 RSVP Voices; 6 Brighton Festival Youth Choir; City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra/James Morgan
rec. Autumn 2007, Barrandov Studios/Smecky Studios, Prague and Spring 2008, Ashmead Studios, London
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD138
[57:27]

 

Experience Classicsonline


Born in Belfast, Brian Knowles was educated in Liverpool, and went on to study composition with John Gardner, while a student at the Royal Academy from 1964 to 1967. He taught music at the Herbert Shiner School in Petworth, before abandoning school teaching for work as a performer with the group Saffron and then as Musical Director for Roger Whitaker, who recorded many of Knowles’ songs. He continued to write in other idioms too and recent years have seen the commissioning and performing of works such as his anthem ‘Jubilee Tribute’, performed at the Albert Hall during the annual Service of Remembrance (2002), and his cantata ‘Pentecost’ performed in Chichester Cathedral.

Knowles’ music is, on the evidence of this present CD, pleasantly melodic and resolutely tonal. Knowles’ mentions Vaughan Williams and Ireland as major influences on his work and certainly his music seems to belong in a direct line of descent from such figures. His writing bears few or no traces of any developments in western ‘serious’ music since the early decades of the twentieth century – individual readers and listeners will, no doubt, all have their own views as to whether this is a good or a bad thing. It has, either way, to be admitted that there isn’t a lot that is especially distinctive or innovative about Brian Knowles’ music here, thoroughly competent and listenable as it is.

The present project involves the setting of eighteen poems. Some of them are by major poets, such as Wordsworth (‘Written in March’, ‘The Daffodils’), Byron (‘She Walks in Beauty’), Tennyson (a passage from ‘In Memoriam’, ‘Crossing the Bar’), Hardy (‘Weathers’), and Yeats (‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’); the Victorians are well represented – not only by Tennyson, but also by Thomas Hood (‘I Remember, I Remember’), Christina Rossetti (‘Love Came Down at Christmas’) and Mary Coleridge (the lovely ‘Lord of the Winds); there are two medieval texts – one of Helen Waddell’s translations from the medieval Latin (‘Come, Sweetheart, Come’) and the anonymous 15th century poem ‘I Sing of a Maiden’; the twentieth century is represented by Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Everyone Sang’, an extract from Auden’s ‘Night Mail’ (comparisons with Britten are perhaps best avoided here), Carol Ann Duffy’s ‘A Child’s Sleep’ (Aaron Jay Kernis’s settings of poems by Duffy in his Valentines are altogether more distinctive) and the anonymous ‘Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep’ (most often attributed to Mary Elizabeth Frye, though the authorship is uncertain). Brian Knowles’ taste, it seems, is for poetry of relatively direct emotional expressiveness and for natural imagery and, on the whole, he respects the texts he sets without failing to also do something with them, musically speaking, that enhances them and articulates important things about their emotional substance.

Yet there isn’t, I’m afraid, much sense of magic or excitement here. This may have quite a lot to do, I suspect, with the circumstances under which the recording was produced. Unless I am much mistaken, the orchestral accompaniments were recorded first and the singers added their contributions later, without all the performers ever being in the same room at the same time. It certainly sounds that way to me. This isn’t, of course, an altogether unfamiliar procedure in some areas of recorded music. Here, however, the lack of flexibility available to the singers, the lack of creative and interpretive interplay amongst orchestra, conductor and soloist generates a kind of stiffness and squareness, a lack of musical fluidity, as it were. So, for example, one could imagine a performance of ‘Written in March’ far fuller of exuberance than this one is, a performance that might be full of serious ‘Joy’ (to use a word of major importance to the English romantic poets); as it is it all sounds too constrained, too short on the sense of freedom and release which are the very essence of the poem. This lack is not, I think, anything to do with the skills of the performers but with the uneasy ‘separation’ which, I feel sure, was involved in the production of the recording. Something of the same goes for the setting – as performed here – of Hardy’s ‘Weathers’.

For some of the settings the problem is less acute – the extraordinarily beautiful words of ‘I Sing of a Maiden’ (one of the greatest of all surviving Middle English lyrics) have about them, with their slow overlapping, incremental repetitions a hieratic, static quality, like an icon of the virgin or of the annunciation, as in the second, third and fourth stanzas (‘He’ is Christ):

                        He came also stille
                        Where his mother was,
                        As dew in Aprille
                        That falls on the grass.
 
                        He came also stille
                        To his mother’s bower
                        As dew in Aprille
                        That falls on the flower.
 
                        He came also stille
                        Where his mother lay,
                        As dew in Aprille
                        That falls on the spray.

Knowles creates a lovely, slow melodic line for this poem, to which Elin Manahan Thomas does full and beautiful justice – indeed my own feeling is that the choral accompaniment adds little. What I have described as ‘stiffness’ on some of the other tracks, the absence of the kind of flexibility of phrase and rhythm that only truly ‘live’ performance can possess, here becomes part of the very way the piece works, part of its musical and poetic ‘stillness’.

All of the soloists have their moments (Jon Christos sings very attractively in ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’ and Nick Garrett is moving in ‘Crossing the Bar’), though the contributions of soprano Thomas and mezzo Juliette Pochin generally outshine those of the two men. Both the choirs heard let no one down.

All those who admire the more traditional end of twentieth-century English song should find things to enjoy here.

Glyn Pursglove






 


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