Michael HURD (1928-2006)
Pop Cantatas - Words and Music by Michael Hurd
Jonah-Man Jazz - A Cantata-Musical (1966) [10:12]
Prodigal - A Cantata in Popular Style (1989) [13:07]
Rooster Rag - A Cantata in Popular Style (1975) [13:32]
Swingin’ Samson - A Cantata in Popular Style (1973) [11:27]
Captain Coram’s Kids - An “eighteenth century pop cantata” (1987) [18:42]
John Addison (narrator) (Jonah, Coram); Alexander Wells (piano) *(Prodigal, Rooster, Samson)
Members of the New London Orchestra (Jonah, Rooster, Coram)
New London Children’s Choir/Ronald Corp
rec. St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead, London, UK, 8, 21 November 2009. DDD
The sung texts can be accessed at www.naxos.com/libretti/572505.htm
NAXOS 8.572505 [67:02]

An admission immediately; my request to review this disc was fuelled by a strong dose of nostalgia. Back at Childwall Primary School Liverpool in about 1969 we sang Jonah Man Jazz and a couple of those brilliantly catchy tunes have stayed with me ever since. The pleasure in coming back to this many years down the line is to discover that they remain as fun and as infectiously toe-tapping as ever. My one surprise was to realise how ‘new’ the piece was when we performed it then. Michael Hurd claims not to have invented the ‘Pop Cantata’ form which might indeed be the case but he was certainly a pioneer and remains one of the best composers in this genre. The most famous of all is the Andrew Lloyd-Webber/Time Rice Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. This originated as a classic Pop Cantata before being expanded into a full West End musical. For anyone who is dismissive of Lloyd-Webber I suggest you watch the enthusiasm and delight which young performers still get from singing the original. Given that Joseph originated a couple of years after Jonah I wonder if the young Lloyd-Webber and Rice were at all influenced by the earlier work? The concept is far from complex; short choral works for children to sing taking their storylines from the Bible or significant historical events. The musical vocabulary is direct, simple and above all fun. Several times in the liner Hurd – who died in 2006 - is quoted as saying how important it was to him that the performers enjoyed themselves. A composer’s note to performer’s reads; “Above all, there is no point in approaching the work in any other spirit than the determination to have fun. If so moved, let hands clap, fingers click and voices add yelps of encouragement”. The music draws on popular styles with a gently jazzy edge. Most of the time the writing is for unison voices but when there are harmonies they are as telling and effective as they are straightforward – proof of which is I could remember ‘my’ descant in When Jonah sank down into the sea the instant the music started. Hurd wrote the libretti too and he manages to steer a skilful path between the gently witty and appealing to his chosen audience. I rather like another quote from the Hurd website at http://www.michaelhurd.org.uk which perfectly encapsulates my own memory of singing this work; “In these less reverential days, the faintly naughty thrill of such lines as "the Lord he said: 'Well, this ain't right'" might be missed but as an antidote to what Michael described as "an endless diet of part-songs about flowers" this sort of music for young performers and their teachers must have been a very refreshing breeze indeed.

A quick check on the web shows a very large body of work of varying lengths and on a wide range of topics nearly all aimed at young performers. The five cantatas here are presented in bright-as-a-button performances by the New London Children’s Choir. I have one little negative – just a couple of times I feel conductor Ronald Corp chooses tempi that are a fraction steady. The upside is every word stays commendably clear which reduces the problem that there are no words printed in the liner - although they are available to download from the Naxos website I believe - but overall I think he could have pushed his young singers more. I remember we had just a pianist and I did not realise a version existed with an instrumental accompaniment. This is very simple, I guess aimed at school performers too. In Jonah-Man Jazz this accompaniment does sound rather perfunctory. But with those two minor carps out of the way the rest is all positive. The choir and all of the soloists are excellent. I like very much the fact that the choir do not sing with an overly rehearsed blanched tone. These are kids singing with gusto. Likewise the various narrators used in the works pitch the style of the narrative to perfection. They say their short linking lines simply and effectively, again nothing arch or knowing.

Another part of Hurd’s great skill is the variety he crams into such a short period of time. None of the works outstay their welcome and there are usually more than half a dozen widely differing songs in the quarter hour time frame. Away from Jonah I knew Swingin’ Samson. Here, Hurd rather neatly chooses American musical styles for each movement so Clip and Clip when Samson’s hair is cut rather wittily is a barbershop quartet style with other songs encompassing everything from Stephen Foster to jazz and a hoe-down. How brilliant of Hurd to educate his singers even when they do not realise they are being educated! Samson is scored for a simple piano/bass/drums line-up. The pianist is the choir’s regular accompanist Alexander Wells who does a commendably good job throughout the whole disc. For my taste producer/engineer Michael Ponder has given the piano a slightly recessed position in the sound picture which detracts from the sharpness of attack of some numbers – an effect which compounds the impression that certain sections would have benefited from an extra 10% vim from the stick. The latest of the five works presented here is Prodigal from 1989. It seems irrelevant to state that stylistically little has changed in the near quarter century since Jonah. The formula works, the performers are not bothered about any musicological time-line so why change? As with the other works I am sure it is great fun to perform but from the outside the level of invention seems slightly lower. Interesting to note that the Michael Hurd website lists this work as lasting twenty-two minutes as opposed to the thirteen taken here; is that a typo or is this a cut version?

The most ambitious work here is Captain Coram’s Kids. At nearly nineteen minutes this is significantly longer than any of the other four cantatas as presented. It differs in other ways too; the story is historical rather than allegorical or biblical and the music is more overtly serious in relative terms. Thomas Coram was an 18th Century Philanthropist who founded the Foundling Hospital to care for destitute children. Famously Handel gave a charitable performance of The Messiah for the hospital as well as donating the manuscript of the Hallelujah Chorus. All of which rather neatly gives Hurd an ‘in’ to write pastiche baroqueries as well as music of a gently more lyrical and serious nature. One moment had me thinking of Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast which came as a bit of a surprise! The accompanying group is expanded – logically – to include a string quartet and four woodwind. All of the playing here is a delight and adds to the impact of the piece.

This recording has been made with the support of the British Music Society Charitable Trust which in turn made use of the Michael Hurd Bequest. This is not a disc that should be listened to at a single sitting – the deliberate similarity between the works makes such an exercise one of diminishing returns. But approached individually these are works of enormous charm and no little skill performed with a smile and considerable panache. For anyone wanting to investigate these pieces with a view to performance I cannot imagine better reference recordings. Group singing remains the easiest and best way to introduce children to the experience of collective music-making and this style of music is an ideal vehicle. Aside from Jonah I mainly know Michael Hurd from his fine biographies of Ivor Gurney and Rutland Boughton. The liner mentions some other vocal works which I would like to hear, there is a great deal of craft and skill that goes into the creation of such superficially simple music. No-one is going to pretend this is ‘important’ music but anything that stays in the memory for forty years with such pleasurable clarity has to be a winner.

Nick Barnard

see also review by John Sheppard

Anything that stays in the memory for forty years with such pleasurable clarity has to be a winner.