English Choral Music
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
A.M.D.G. (1939) [16:54]
Sacred and Profane, Op. 91 (1975) [13:19]
A Garland for the Queen (1953) [34:22]:
Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
Aubade for Coronation Morning [5:16]
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
What is it like to be young and fair? [2:20]
Michael TIPPETT (1905-1998)
Dance, Clarion Air [3:35]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Silence and Music [4:24]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Spring at this hour [2:42]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Hills [2:27]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Inheritance [5:07]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
White-flowering days Op. 37 [3:38]
Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Canzonet [2:18]
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)
Salutation [2:35]
Cambridge University Chamber Choir/Timothy Brown
rec. June 1991, St George’s Church, Cambridge, U.K.
No texts provided.
A Garland for the Queen is a collection of part-songs composed to celebrate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. A work was commissioned from each of ten British composers, to words by contemporary British writers. The idea for the work goes back to Elizabeth I, for whom Thomas Morley edited a collection of madrigals entitled The Triumphs of Oriana. The first performance took place at the Royal Festival Hall in London in June 1953.
The themes the composers chose to explore turn out to be many and varied, with relatively little reference to the royal and festive occasion for which the work was planned. However, the main drawback with this disc – the only drawback, in truth – is that no texts are provided. The authors’ names are given in the accompanying essay, but much laborious and often fruitless searching in anthologies and on the internet is necessary to find the sung words. Each piece is lovely to listen to in its own way, but makes little sense if we don’t know what the words are about. This is a grievous omission and a missed opportunity, and with some difficult Britten on the same disc, including some settings of medieval poetry, perhaps more so with this repertoire than with many another.
The set opens with Bliss’s brilliant, imposing Aubade. The words are by Henry Reed, but the work is a series of skilfully contrived and contrasting choral textures, with wordless passages imitating birdsong. This most satisfying piece is followed by Bax’s much simpler, homophonic What is it like, to words by the composer’s brother, Clifford. Michael Tippett’s contribution, to words by Christopher Fry, was typically uncompromising. The opening flourishes on the word “Dance”, as well as the richness and exuberance of the writing put one in mind of The Midsummer Marriage, the marvellous and equally uncompromising opera he had completed just a few months before and which was to receive its first performance only in 1955. The work is a challenge for even the finest choirs. Vaughan Williams’ piece, to words by his wife Ursula, shares with the Three Shakespeare Songs a certain disembodied choral texture, whereas Lennox Berkeley’s Spring at this hour is notable for a gorgeous and radiant closing passage. The words are by Paul Dehn. John Ireland’s contribution, to words by James Kirkup, is perhaps the most conventional, very much an English homophonic part-song of its period, but no less attractive for that. The final cadence of Inheritance (Walter de la Mare) is pure Howells, reassuringly so after the surprising dissonance of much that precedes it. Finzi’s piece, too, is typical of him, a lovely setting of words by Edmund Blunden, though I wish in this case that he had settled for a less emphatic close. Alan Rawsthorne’s Canzonet is amongst the loveliest of the pieces, with a beautiful part for solo soprano singing English words by Louis MacNeice over a Latin text in the choir. Rubbra’s setting of Christopher Hassall’s Salutation, on the other hand, seems pale in comparison, despite its clearly intended decisive ending with appropriately royal references.
Benjamin Britten composed A.M.D.G. (Ad maiorem Dei gloriam) in the United States in 1939, but he was clearly unsure about much or all of it, as he never made a fair copy and the work was not performed in his lifetime. It was prepared for performance and first given in 1984, and was published in 1989. Much of it is extremely challenging to sing, and the anonymous booklet notes give this as one possible reason why Britten never completed the work. Britten scholars will have other views. At first sight the intense spirituality and even the poetic manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins can seem at odds with Britten’s sensibility. And there are certainly aspects of the music that, with hindsight, might well have given rise to doubt in the composer’s mind. Whatever the reasons – and the composer suppressed a fair amount of music during this period – it is a dramatic and striking work, with a certain ascetic quality that will surprise those familiar with, say, the Hymn to St Cecilia of only three years later.
Sacred and Profane, one of Britten’s last works, was written for Peter Pears and the Wilbye Consort of Voices. Eight medieval lyrics are set to music for unaccompanied five-part choir. As the title makes clear, the texts are a mixture of sacred and profane, but with the unifying factor that most of them are really rather sombre. The final song, in particular, entitled “A Death”, is a sardonic and grimly comic meditation on physical decline and the journey to the grave. Much of the music is Britten at his most astringent, and it doesn’t always make for easy listening. In spite of the immense difficulties it presents to performers, it is superbly conceived for the medium, and comes over with great effect in a fine performance.
The names of the twenty-seven members of the Cambridge University Chamber Choir are listed in the booklet, but most of them will have changed a bit since then, as this disc was recorded in 1991. It is, in fact, a reissue of a disc that first appeared on the Gamut label. That disc was well received, and rightly so, as the performances, under Timothy Brown, are very fine indeed. I haven’t heard an alternative performance of the whole “Garland” collection, but it is difficult to imagine anything more accomplished than this. And a special word must go to Rachel Elliot for her lovely solo singing in Rawsthorne’s piece. The two Britten pieces also receive outstandingly satisfying performances, but comparing them to those by Stephen Layton and Polyphony coupled together on Hyperion one senses just a little more security, virtuosity and homogeneity of tone in the later performances. A Garland for the Queen, though, was a lovely idea that could so easily have gone wrong but didn’t. If you don’t know these pieces – and aren’t afraid of some particularly difficult Britten – the absence of texts is the only conceivable reason to let this disc pass you by.
William Hedley
A superb and inexpensive disc rather compromised by the failure to provide the sung texts.