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The NMC Songbook
see end of review for track listing and performer details
rec. 21 August-17 September 2008, 10 November 2008, Hall One, King’s Place, London, 30 September 2008, Cadogan Hall, London. DDD
NMC D150 [4 CDs: 74:36 + 75:36 + 77:23 + 71:50]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a unique collection of songs commissioned to celebrate NMC’s 20th anniversary. An impressive body of work, the collection represents many of the UK’s most celebrated living composers, from young talents at the beginning of their careers such as Luke Bedford, Anna Meredith and Philip Neil Martin to established veterans such as Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle and Colin Matthews. Unwrapping the discs has a sense of excitement about it too; the packaging is creative, brightly coloured and glossy, suggesting a certain life and energy to the British contemporary music scene.
 
The composers were asked to create a work of under three minutes duration, with an English text, for solo voice or duet with or without accompaniment of piano, harp, percussion, guitar or harpsichord. The durations themselves are interesting, ranging from around one minute to almost five minutes in one case. Instrumental interludes come in the form of a set of increasingly present Galliards by Thomas Morley, arranged by NMC founder member Colin Matthews.
 
With 110 short pieces in the collection, it is impossible to mention each one in the context of this review, although each has its merits and is worthy of mention. For reasons of appropriate brevity, however, I confine my comments to a few selected songs and leave the rest to be discovered by the listener. Perhaps most interesting from the whole collection is the way each composer chose to respond to the brief, giving a sense of their musical personalities and creative ideas. This itself is fascinating, and the richness of variety and talent working in composition in Britain today is something to get very excited about.
 
Disc 1 opens with a bold fanfare style trio for soprano, mezzo-soprano and tubular bells by David Sawer, which is performed with drama and intensity by Claire Booth, Susan Bickley and Owen Gunnell. Jonathan Cole’s tss-k-haa makes use of creative vocal sounds and stands out as a particularly interesting work. Careful examination of the liner-notes reveals that the high-pitched sound in this piece is in fact a balloon, played by the composer himself. There is a wonderful sense of humour and originality about this which made it one of my favourites. Nicola LeFanu’s The Bourne is hypnotically beautiful and is given a mesmerizing performance by Elizabeth Atherton and Lucy Wakeford. Nicholas Sackman’s contribution is strongly rhythmic with twisting melody lines brought to life by the rich tone of tenor Benjamin Hulett. Harrison Birtwistle is represented through an arrangement of This Silence before Light, while Joe Duddell’s Cease Sorrows Now is beautifully dark and weighty with a strong sense of emotion. Alison Bauld’s Shakespeare setting has a wonderful sense of drama, as does Philip Neil Martin’s enticing offering, the longest song on the first disc. I also enjoyed James MacMillan’s duet for two trebles and harp, with its purity of sound-world.
 
Gordon Crosse’s Dirge from Cymbeline provides a rich opening to Disc 2. Further highlights include Richard Causton’s refreshing English Encouragement of Art, a spectacular duo for female voices and percussion. Enjoyable and contrasting contributions come from Robert Saxton and Julian Anderson, while James Dillon’s Upon the Cloudy Night for counter-tenor and piano is an impressive feat of performance by Andrew Watts and Andrew Ball, with complex piano textures and microtonal vocal writing. Peter Maxwell Davies’ song is a delightfully bi-tonal duo for treble and piano, with a simple but haunting vocal line heard over a polyphonic piano part. Tarik O’Regan makes effective use of a trio of counter-tenor, tenor and harp with some haunting harmonies and flowing melody lines. A Cause for Wonder by Peter Wiegold is full of drama and passion. It is given a splendid performance by Andrew Watts and Iain Burnside. Roderick Williams performs his own work, and the disc ends with the wonderfully still and simple haiku by Blaar Kindsdottir.
 
David Matthews’ Plovers Peak is a beautifully evocative work which captures attention. A work by Jeremy Dale Roberts follows on Disc 3, which has a wonderfully angular vocal line heard against a haunting and simple piano part. With a text by Ursula Vaughan Williams, this is probably one of my favourites from the whole collection. On this disc I also enjoyed songs by Diana Burrell, John Casken and Daniel Basford. Huw Watkins’ Proud Maisie stands out and demands attention from its dramatic opening bars. This is clearly a well-crafted and imaginative piece of writing which ends almost as abruptly as it begins. The performance, by Claire Booth with the composer at the piano, is also excellent, making this another entry into my favourites list. Michael Berkeley’s homage to Poulenc is enjoyable and atmospheric, while Roger Marsh’s Lullaby is a wonderfully understated and expressive work with gentle percussion accompaniment. Stephen Montague’s turbulent The Poison Tree is enormously enjoyable, with its dark rumblings and strong rhythms. A Dangerous Crossing by Edwin Roxburgh is another highly successful composition, with a shimmering piano accompaniment and soaring soprano melody. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Bellamy brings the disc to an enjoyable and jaunty close.
 
The final disc of the set opens with a strong contribution from Jonathan Harvey. Ah! Sun-flower is a duo for soprano and piano which is a setting of a William Blake text. Stuart MacRae’s piece sets a medieval text for counter-tenor with a sparse guitar accompaniment. This is an excellent work which creates an evocative atmosphere. By stark contrast, Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest is a humorous setting of a section of Oscar Wilde’s text, sung by the composer and depicting two different characters as they hold a conversation. This is extremely entertaining and a welcome break from the seriousness of some of the other works. Martin Butler and Colin Matthews provide warm and expressive pieces, while Gavin Bryar’s captivating song is performed wonderfully by Andrew Kennedy and Lucy Wakeford. Claudia Molitor’s My Favourite Sound uses humming voices over an electronic backing track which includes breathing and popping sounds. Geoffrey Poole’s work is in the style of a traditional folksong, but with a wonderfully comical text providing a wry commentary on modern cultural references. The performance by baritone David Stout is impressive, and this is a fantastic contribution to the disc. Simon Bainbridge’s duo for mezzo-soprano and counter-tenor is an effective setting of Shakespeare’s most famous Sonnet. Further enjoyable songs come from Anthony Payne, Morgan Hayes and Ben Foskett.

The collection was recorded at Kings Place prior to its public opening, and these discs are admirable testimony to the acoustics of the new venue. The singing and playing is of a consistently high standard. This is a stunning anthology and NMC deserves to be justly proud of both this celebratory collection and its success over the past 20 years in bringing new music to the public. Congratulations to the Holst Foundation and all that have been involved in NMC’s success.
 
Carla Rees

Track listing
CD1
David SAWER (b.1961) The Source [1:55]
Luke BEDFORD (b.1978) Upon St George’s Hill [1:36]
Anthony POWERS (b.1953) Shining Plain [3:55]
Gary CARPENTER (b.1951) Interlude [1:25]
Jonathan COLE (b.1970) tss-k-haa [3:11]
Thomas MORLEY (1557/8 – 1602) arr. Colin MATTHEWS (b.1946) Galliard: Version 1 [1:04]
Anthony GILBERT (b.1934) Those Fenny Bells [3:56]
Philip CASHIAN (b. 1963) Daisy’s Song [2:02]
Nicola LEFANU (b.1947) The Bourne [3:27]
Nicholas SACKMAN (b.1950) Maiden in the Moor [2:40]
John WHITE (b.1936) Houses and Gardens in the Heart of England [2:31]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 2 [1:28]
Harrison BIRTWISTLE (b.1934) arr. Colin MATTHEWS This Silence Before Light [2:39]
Julian PHILIPS (b.1969) Blist’s Hill [2:38]
Anna MEREDITH (b.1978) Fin like a Flower [2:13]
Joe DUDDELL (b.1972) Cease Sorrows Now [3:11]
Alison BAULD (b.1944) Titania’s Song [3:34]
Donnacha DENNEHY (b.1970) Swift’s Epitaph [2:49]
Helen GRIME (b.1981) Nobody Comes [3:26]
John McCABE (b.1939) A Cat [2:59]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 3 [1:46]
Michael FINNISSY (b.1946) Outside Fort Tregantle [3:17]
Phillip Neil MARTIN (b.1979) Blaze of Noon [4:01]
Joe CUTLER (b.1968) Bands [2:31]
James MACMILLAN (b. 1959) Mouth of the Dumb [3:55]
Jonathan POWELL (b.1963) Stanzas 1814 [2:34]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 4 [1:33]
Hugh WOOD (b.1932) Easter [2:06]

CD2

Gordon CROSSE (b.1937) Dirge from Cymbeline [3:19]
David HORNE (b.1970) A curious thirsty fly [2:19]
Rachel LEACH (b.1973) Out of Town [3:21]
Richard CAUSTON (b.1971) English Encouragement of Art [1:02]
David BLAKE (b.1936) A Swallow [2:58]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 5 [1:42]
Robert SAXTON (b.1953) The beach in winter: Scratby (For Tess) [2:30]
Julian ANDERSON (b.1967) Lucretius [3:14]
James DILLON (b.1950) Upon the cloudy night [3:15]
Sadie HARRISON (b.1965) Easter Zunday [3:49]
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES (b.1934) Labyrinth into Light [2:43]
Edward RUSHTON (b.1972) With my Whip [2:43]
Simon HOLT (b.1958) Raju Raghuvanshi is a Ghost [3:40]
Thea MUSGRAVE (b.1928) A Winter’s Morning [3:20]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 6 [1:06]
Tarik O’REGAN (b.1978) Darkness Visible [3:46]
Emily HALL (b.1978) A Simple Neo-Georgian Summer [1:43]
Peter WIEGOLD (b.1949) A Cause for Wonder [3:43]
Emily HOWARD (b.1979) Wild Clematis in Winter [2:39]
Bayan NORTHCOTT (b.1940) Poet and Star [2:41]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 7 [1:47]
Rupert BAWDEN (b.1958) Vocalise - Loch Lurgainn in the Sunshine [2:15]
Roderick WILLIAMS A Coat [2:58]
Julian GRANT (b.1960) Know thy Kings and Queens [2:13]
Robert KEELEY (b.1960) Because I Breathe not Love to Everyone [3:12]
Tansy DAVIES (b.1973) Destroying Beauty [2:11]
Philip GRANGE (b.1956) First Known When Lost [2:20]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 8 [1:25]
Blaar KINDSDOTTIR (b.1928) haiku [1:28]

CD3

Brian ELIAS (b.1948) Meet me in the Green Glen [3:12]
Lloyd MOORE Music, thou Queen of Souls [1:44]
David MATTHEWS (b.1967) Plover’s Peak [3:11]
Jeremy DALE ROBERTS (b.1934) Spoken to a Bronze Head [4:06]
Jonathan LLOYD (b.1948) The Greenwood’s Lament [3:14]
Diana BURRELL (1948) Love Song (for yoga) [1:43]
John CASKEN (b.1949) Night and Morning [3:17]
Daniel BASFORD Hour-glass [3:35]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 9 [1:07]
Huw WATKINS (b.1976) Proud Maisie [1:42]
Lyell CRESSWELL (b.1944) A Recipe for Whisky [3:28]
Michael BERKELEY (b.1948) Echo: hommage à Francis Poulenc [3:30]
Roger MARSH (b.1949) Lullaby [2:46]
Dai FUJIKURA (b.1977) Lake Side [2:37]
Richard BAKER (b.1972) English Lullaby [2:43]
Stephen MONTAGUE (b.1943) The Poison Tree [2:39]
Judith BINGHAM (b.1952) She walks in beauty like the night [3:33]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 10 [1:48]
Christopher FOX (b.1955) The True Standard Advanced [2:15]
Roxanna PANUFNIK (b.1968) That Mighty Heart [2:51]
Christopher MAYO (b.1980) The Fitful Alternations of the Rain [2:45]
Errollyn WALLEN (b.1968) Tree [4:08]
Chris DENCH (b.1953) An Hypallage [3:17]
Edwin ROXBURGH (b.1937) A Dangerous Crossing [2:54]
David BEDFORD (b.1937) The Roman Centurion’s Song [3:16]
Luke STONEHAM (b.1966) 25 [3:07]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 11 [1:25]
Mark-Anthony TURNAGE (b.1960) Bellamy [1:14]

CD4

Jonathan HARVEY (b.1939) Ah! Sun-flower [1:56]
Judith WEIR (b.1954) Blackbirds and Thrushes [2:48]
Stuart MACRAE (b.1976) The Life of this World [3:42]
Gerald BARRY (b.1952) The Importance of Being Earnest [2:05]
Martin BUTLER (b.1960) London [3:37]
Colin MATTHEWS (b.1946) Out in the Dark [1:42]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 12 [1:26]
Gavin BRYARS (b.1943) Old Man and Sea [4:50]
Alexander GOEHR (b.1932) Ulysses’ Admonition to Achilles [3:32]
Claudia MOLITOR (b.1974) My Favourite Sound [2:51]
John WOOLRICH (b.1954) Stendhal’s Observation [1:58]
Howard SKEMPTON (b.1947) Silence on Ullswater [0:53]
Geoffrey POOLE (b.1949) Heynonnynonny Smallprint [4:17]
Joseph PHIBBS (b.1974) The Moon’s Funeral [3:20]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Version 13 [1:29]
Julia SIMPSON Bees a-zwarmen [2:03]
Simon BAINBRIDGE (b.1952) Sonnet XVIII [3:18]
Robin HOLLOWAY (b.1943) Go, Lovely Rose [4:06]
Jordan HUNT An Aesthetic of Lines [2:45]
Giles SWAYNE (b.1946) I look into my glass [2:12]
Anthony PAYNE (b.1936) Ghost Train [4:07]
Morgan HAYES (b.1940) A Dictionary of London [3:10]
Ben FOSKETT (b.1977) Driving [2:02]
Thomas MORLEY arr. Colin MATTHEWS Galliard: Complete Version [3:09]
Bryn HARRISON (b.1969) An Oblique [3:45]

Performer details
Andrew Swait; Sam Harris (treble)
Elizabeth Atherton; Claire Booth; Ailish Tynan (soprano)
Susan Bickley; Loré Lixenberg; Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano)
James Bowman; Michael Chance; Andrew Watts (counter-tenor)
Benjamin Hulett; Andrew Kennedy; Daniel Norman (tenor)
Omar Ebrahim; Richard Jackson; Stephen Loges; George Mosley; David Stout; Roderick Williams (baritone)
Gerald Barry; Errollyn Wallen (voices)
Andrew Ball; Iain Burnside; Michael Finnissy; Andrew Plant; Jonathan Powell; Huw Watkins; Andrew West (piano)
Lucy Wakeford (harp)
Jane Chapman (harpsichord)
Owen Gunnell (percussion)
Antonis Hatzinikolaou (guitar)

 


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