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extraordinary by any standards

An excellent disc

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summation of a lifetime’s experience.

Piano Concertos 1 and 2
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A Garland for John McCabe


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Howard SKEMPTON (b.1947)
The Cloths of Heaven - Choral Music and Songs
Upon my lap my sovereign lady sits (1998) [2:21]
O Saviour of the World (1986) [1:47]
Locus iste (2007) [1:58]
The Song of Songs (2000) [4:42]
O Life! (1996) [4:29]
Nature’s Fire (1994) [5:26]
Adam lay y-bounden (1999) [1:22]
Magnificat and Nunc dimittis (Edinburgh Service) (2003) [6:19]
Lamentations (2001) [11:41]
Beati quorum via  [2:27]
Emerson Songs (2003) [7:09]
He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (1999) [4:15]
Ave Virgo sanctissima (2001) [2:45]
Missa brevis (2007/8) [6:58]
Ostende nobis Domine (2001) [2:51]
Recessional (1983) [3:28]
The Exon Singers/Mathew Owens
Christopher Sheldrake (baritone); Beth Mackay (mezzo); Bartholomew Lawrence (baritone); James Akers (theorbo); Jeffrey Makinson and Matthew Owens (organ)
rec. 3-5 January 2008, Wells Cathedral, 3 June 2008, Crichton Collegiate Church
Texts and translations included
DELPHIAN DCD34056 [70:17]
Experience Classicsonline

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.

Bartholomew Lawrence 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.

The conductor 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 effective setting.

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 indeed.

John Quinn 


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