Michael HURD (1928-2006)
Jonah-Man Jazz (1966) [10:12]
Prodigal (1989) [13:07]
Rooster Rag (1975) [13:32]
Swingin’ Samson (1973) [11:27]
Captain Coram’s Kids (1987) [18:42]
New London Children’s Choir; Members of the New London Orchestra/Ronald Corp
John Addison (narrator)
Alexander Wells (piano)
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London, 8 & 21 November 2009: texts available on website
NAXOS 8.572505 [67:00]

Singing in schools is at last coming back into fashion. In the immediate post-war period it was a normal part of any child’s education but by the 1960s many teachers felt a need for some kind of updating of what was being sung. Possibly the first “pop cantata” was Herbert Chappell’s “The Daniel Jazz”, a setting of Vachel Lindsay published in 1963, but it was soon followed by a dozen or so by Michael Hurd, starting with “Jonah-Man Jazz” in 1966. The five examples on this disc give a good idea of the genre. The composer makes it plain in his introductions to the works that they were written for fun and should be performed with that in mind. Inevitably they are most effective in a school situation where the whole class or even whole school can take part whatever their level of musical ability. Given a teacher able to interest the children in the musical style (perhaps a little outdated now) and encourage them to enjoy the ingenious lyrics they do indeed work very well indeed. It is good to have them recorded but it does bring the risk of a too careful approach, losing or at least reducing the element of fun and even of risk that live performance can involve. Fortunately for the most part that is avoided here.

The composer offers performers the option of using only a piano as accompaniment or of adding jazz percussion and bass. These options are used in Prodigal and Swingin’ Samson respectively along with even more elaborate orchestration in Jonah-Man Jazz and Captain Coram’s Kids. Although John Addison acts as narrator for those two works children are employed as narrators in Rooster Rag and Swingin’ Samson. I found this and the more sparse instrumentation more effective as being more in keeping with the unpretentious nature of the music. In general the performances are effective and spirited although they would have benefited for much of the time by a closer balance for the choir – the piano does tend to grab all the attention at times.

I mentioned the amusing lyrics but you need to access them from the Naxos website (all nine pages of them) to read them. It is tiresome but worth it – and then you are able also to join in the delightful audience song in Swingin’ Samson. Unsurprisingly it would be a mistake to listen to more than one Cantata at a time, but they are worth hearing in that way. I hope that this disc, sponsored by the British Music Society using the Michael Hurd Bequest, will be followed with another including other pop cantatas including Hurd’s splendid “Hip-hip Horatio” with its parody of oratorio recitative, Herbert Chappell’s “The Daniel Jazz”, Joseph Horovitz’ “Captain Noah and his Floating Zoo” and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat” in the 20 minute version made before it became grotesquely extended. In the meantime this reminder of a genre which must have introduced a whole generation of children to the pleasures of singing is very welcome.

John Sheppard

Welcome reminder of a genre that introduced a generation of children to the pleasures of singing.

This disc was sponsored by the British Music Society using the Michael Hurd Bequest.