The English composer, Howard Skempton, studied with Cornelius
Cardew and, as it says in the booklet notes, “Cardew helped
him to discover a musical language of great simplicity.” That
simplicity – or economy of means – is well displayed in the
pieces on this CD.
I must admit,
however, that I have mixed feelings about Skempton’s simple,
direct style. As I’ll make clear shortly, I hope, it brings
many rewards but I don’t think the style is consistently successful.
Sometimes Skempton seems to me to be rather repetitive and
to stretch material a bit too far. One such example is The
Song of Songs, written for TTBB chorus. In his
very helpful notes John Fallas refers to the music’s “hypnotic
repetitions.” I’m sorry to say I found the piece boring, not
least because for most of the time the choir intones over
and over the first line of the text: “The song of songs, which
is Solomon’s.” This piece outstays its welcome. So too does
the concluding Recessional for organ. In fact this
piece can be played on any instrument or combination of instruments
but, as John Fallas describes it, the piece is a “progression
of simple triads in even rhythm.” Add to that the consistently
quiet dynamic and in my book you have a recipe for dullness,
though other listeners may react more positively.
A trait of Skempton’s
musical style that I found slightly disconcerting is that
it can seem sometimes as if he’s done away with any punctuation
in the texts he’s setting. This seems to be the case in the
canticles from the Edinburgh Service. The setting is
for unison trebles – or sopranos in this instance – against
a simple chordal organ accompaniment. The vocal line is continuous
and undulating. It’s gentle music – appropriate, particularly,
for the Magnificat, which is a feminine canticle after all
– but the very continuity of the music rather reduces its
impact, I find. The same thing happens in the Emerson Songs,
These are unaccompanied settings of four poems by Ralph Waldo
Emerson. An unusual feature here is that the first two songs
are for solo baritone and in the fourth the baritone and soprano
sing in two part harmony. But in the third song the two singers
share the vocal line, taking over seamlessly from each other,
usually in mid-line. As John Fallas says, the soprano takes
over the line “as a simple extension of pitch range.” It’s
an unusual device but it works well and the two singers, Bartholomew
Lawrence and Beth Mackay are excellent.
also sings Lamentations. This collection of four songs
offers settings of John Donne’s verse translations of the
Lamentations of Jeremiah. The story behind the composition
is an interesting one, told in full in the booklet note. Skempton
had the inspired idea of using a theorbo to provide the accompaniment.
This works exceptionally well and evokes in a modern way the
sound world of the English lute songs. To judge by the booklet
photograph Bartholomew Lawrence is a young man, probably in
his early twenties. I was very impressed with his singing.
He has a pleasingly warm tone and his voice is produced evenly
throughout its compass. Add to that clear diction and a fine
sense of line and I’d suggest we have here a young singer
with a bright future.
Matthew Owens is obviously an enthusiast for Howard Skempton’s
music and several of the pieces on this disc were written
at his prompting. These include the Missa Brevis, a
terse, economical work, the aforementioned Edinburgh
Service and the Advent carol, Adam lay y-bounden,
which is a succinct, effective and attractive piece.
Some of the choral music, whilst not eschewing
simplicity of utterance, offers a warm harmonic language.
Particularly notable in this regard is He wishes for the
Cloths of Heaven, a setting in C major of Yeats’s
well known text, which gradually expands into eight parts.
This is probably the most sensuous piece in the programme.
Another example of Skempton’s willingness to employ warm harmonies
and quite rich textures is Beati quorum via. More subdued
is Ave Virgo sanctissima, a pretty intense, devotional
piece. On the surface at least the music in this latter piece
is economical of means but that doesn’t mean it’s not a highly
Despite my reservations
about some of the music there’s much to enjoy on this disc,
though I think it’s probably best dipped into rather than
heard straight through. The solo singing is generally very
good and the contributions of the Exon Singers are uniformly
excellent. The recorded sound is first rate and, all in all,
this is a disc that serves Howard Skempton’s music very well