RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Paul STANHOPE (b. 1969)
Songs for the Shadowland
Sea Chronicles (1998) [19:36]
Songs for the Shadowland (2001) [14:25]
Lux aeterna (1999) [5:47]
Songs of Innocence and Joy (2004) [7:59]
Three Geography Songs (1997) [14:33]
Steal Away (trad. arr. Stanhope) (1995) [3:12]
Jane Sheldon (soprano); Ironwood; Southern Cross Soloists; Cantillation/Paul Stanhope; Sydney Chamber Choir/Paul Stanhope; Gondwana Voices/Lyn Williams (with small instrumental ensemble)
rec. February 2009, ABC Music Studios, Brisbane (Songs for the Shadowland); February, April, May 2005 and July 2008, Eugene Goossens Hall, Sydney
ABC CLASSICS 476 3870 [66:27]
I first encountered the name of Australian composer Paul Stanhope in the October 2005 issue of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society Journal. It was in a short article announcing the Sydney premiere of his orchestral work, Fantasia on a theme by Vaughan Williams. I never got to hear the piece, and have to admit to thinking no more about it, nor about the composer, until the present disc came up for review.
As usual when encountering a disc of music by a composer new to me, I first listened to these works in chronological order of composition, but it was probably not the best idea in this case, as the earliest piece is the arrangement of the spiritual Steal Away. Tippett’s arrangement, both in A Child of Our Time and in its later unaccompanied version, seems so inevitably right that I can’t see why another composer would attempt it. Yet although there are similarities between the two at the outset, Stanhope’s version is very much his own thereafter, with held, drone-like bare fifths even evoking his homeland. The work is very well sung by the vocal ensemble Cantillation under the composer’s direction, and the very close recording ensures that any ill-tuned note would have been immediately audible.
From the first notes of Three Geography Songs we know we are in the presence of a composer who understands the voice. I usually shy away from vocal “special effects”, but in these settings of three challenging poems by Australian poet Michael Dransfield, the composer employs them to striking, sometimes stunning effect. His way with the word “stars” is almost cinematographic, for example, and the fact that those who read the liner-notes are forewarned does nothing to minimise its impact. The composer has achieved a perfect synthesis of notes and means, in music which, unorthodox, surprising, and extremely challenging for the singers, could only have been written for choral forces. To what extent the words directly provoked the gorgeous sounds he conjures up from the choir is another matter, but I’m intending to spend a long time trying to decide, so satisfying is it to return to this beautiful and moving piece. It is brilliantly performed by the Sydney Chamber Choir, again conducted by the composer.
Sea Chronicles is a set of five songs for soprano and string quartet on a series of sea-related texts from the works of different poets. Writing in the booklet, Gordon Kerry points out that Elgar did the same in Sea Pictures, and indeed the final piece here is set to an extract from the same poem Elgar used to close his song cycle. I don’t think many composers today would dare to display even so tenuous a link with Elgar; but then, not many composers would dare to write a work entitled Fantasia on a theme by Vaughan Williams. The first and last songs are almost static, with pulsing chords accompanying a serene, high-lying vocal line. The second begins slowly, with wide intervals in the vocal part, before passing to a more rapid passage. The third piece is a kind of devilish scherzo describing a drowning, in which the writing for the quartet is very involved and original. The fourth describes an unidentified man walking on the beach, but the pseudo-philosophical thoughts that his presence provokes are lost on me, I fear. To be honest, I don’t think most of the words are up to much, so I’m happy that the vocal line seems more like an equal partner in the texture than a way of expressing meaning through words. One never has the feeling that these are words than gain something by being sung. This is perhaps the reason why the vocal line only rarely flowers into something truly melodic, and since I seem to have slipped unnoticed into critical mode, I should also add that by the end of the piece I am wishing the composer had written in a few more bass textures. But this is absolutely ravishing music, compelling too, obliging the listener to come back and listen again. And no composer could hope for a better advocate than Jane Sheldon. The word ravishing applies to her singing too, spot-on tuning, agile, and dispensing a wondrous calm in those long, high-lying phrases. I will be looking out for her name on other releases. The string quartet, Ironwood, are worthy partners.
Lux aeterna, to words from the Latin Requiem Mass, is a skilful combination of harsh dissonance and sweet, consoling harmonies. The notes give detailed description of how the composer arranged the vocal parts so that the dissonances are not too difficult to negotiate. It sounds like tricky stuff all the same, but Cantillation give a remarkable showing once again.
Margaret Schindler, of the ensemble Southern Cross Soloists, is blessed with a voice more operatic than that of Jane Sheldon, and with a more pronounced vibrato. She is perfectly at home in the work that gives the disc its title, Songs for the Shadowland, a set of three songs to poems by the Aborigine writer Oodgeroo of the Tribe Noonuccal that deal with death and bereavement. The writing for the ensemble of oboe, bassoon, horn and piano displays the utmost sensitivity and inventiveness, creating a sound-world that perfectly reflects the atmosphere of the words. An unaccompanied horn provides an interlude before the third song, and its characteristic tone returns in the bars before the work’s very moving close.
In Songs of Innocence and Joy, Stanhope was confronted with the difficulty of writing meaningful music for performance by children. In the end he did what countless composers before him had done, temper his musical language into something closer to undisturbed tonality. But he went much further than this. First of all, the texts he chose for these three songs, by Michael Leunig, are at once challenging, serious and fun, and in describing the music I would add the word quirky to the list. I’ll leave listeners to find out why the first song ends with a mini-cacophony of chirruping birds, but it delighted my aging heart and will surely delight younger ones too. The second song, The Duck, transforms the theme from Peter and the Wolf into a seductive habanera, whilst in the third a sombre idea turns into something hopeful, closing the work on an optimistic note. The children of Gondwana Voices are obviously having the time of their lives.
This is an outstanding collection. Every note displays that profound integrity, that search for truth and beauty that marks out a real artist. I recommend it with enthusiasm, but would add a word of advice: savour each piece, but in the order they appear on the disc.
Real music, brilliantly written for voices, beautiful and moving; not to be missed.