Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
The Passing of the Year (2000) [24:10]
In beauty may I walk (2001) [4:16]
My love is mine (1998) [4:01]
Who killed Cock Robin? (1996) [9:17]
It sounded as if the streets were running (2006) [10:36]
I am the day (1999) [6:51]
Wellcome, all Wonders in one sight! (1999) [4:53]
The Three Kings (2001) [5:19]
Convivium Singers/Neil Ferris
Christopher Chromar (piano)
rec. St John’s Church, Wimbledon, 28-29 July 2011
NAXOS 8.572733 [69:23]
The English part-song reached its zenith during the first half of the twentieth century. Elgar in his ‘choral songs’ not only challenged the large amateur choirs of his day with settings of some of the greatest English poets, but also used the medium for some of his boldest experiments such as Owls. Holst used the part-song as a vehicle for some of his most searching late exercises in strict polytonal form, and many of the resulting masterpieces are still too little known. Delius wrote comparatively few part-songs, but some such as On Craig Ddu stand comparison with the best of his miniatures of nature painting. Vaughan Williams moved from folksong settings - often of considerable complexity - out into the realm of pure impressionism in his Three Shakespeare Songs. Moeran used the part-song not only to pastiche Elizabethan madrigals but also to exorcise some of the inner demons from his own soul. Even Britten got in on the act, employing the medium of the narrative part-song with piano accompaniment in his zestful and spicy setting of The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, although his later works in the genre such as Sacred and profane were written with professional performers in mind.
In the second half of the century the English part-song fell on straitened times. The large amateur choirs began to shrink, and at the same time composers began to feel that they needed smaller professional choirs to deal with the technical problems of their more advanced music. The choirs themselves, those that still programmed contemporary music at all, sang smaller pieces by lesser composers, often mere jeux d’esprit which hardly began to face up to the challenge of the great body of English poetry. Even the larger choirs stopped putting part-songs on their concert schedules.
But rejoice! Jonathan Dove has rediscovered the form, and he has done it proud. The main work on this disc is the only one with piano accompaniment - well played with plenty of solidity by Cromar - and it consists of seven well-contrasted settings of which that of Adieu! Farewell, earth’s bliss - to words by Thomas Nashe - is quite simply a masterpiece.
In beauty may I walk is a slightly over-complex setting of a simple Navajo poem. As an interlude we are given a setting for solo mezzo-soprano of My love is mine from The Song of Songs. This is an absolute gem, a perfectly straight setting of beautiful English words in the translation of Miles Coverdale set to a two-limbed melody that has all the charm of a traditional folksong. There is nothing pretentious at all here, nothing trite and nothing unworthy. It is superlatively well sung by Felicity Turner, who has no trouble at all with reaching the higher notes required on occasion and never betrays the slightest problems with pitch in her long unaccompanied reading. If folk singers could be persuaded to look at this piece, it would go down a bomb in folk clubs right across the land.
The earliest setting here, Who killed Cock Robin?, is also one of the most complex and certainly sounds the most difficult to sing. It is great fun, a resolutely jolly setting of the traditional rhyme with plentiful opportunities for imitations of the various creatures who volunteer for the various funereal duties requested. The composer describes the piece as a “fable” but surely that is a misnomer; a fable is a story with a moral, while this is a delightfully amoral poem where even the murderer gets away with it.
Most of the works on this disc date from a five year period between 1996 and 2001; one hopes that Dove will continue to explore the realms of possibility that the part-song opens up. The latest pieces are three settings of Emily Dickinson; and the second is a fabulously delicate piece of choral jewellery.
The last three items here are all set to religious texts, including – one is delighted to see – one by the resolutely unfashionable Dorothy L Sayers. All three should be part of the regular repertory in churches; they would make an ideal change from the more pop-orientated items so often inflicted on long-suffering congregations. The Sayers setting, The Three Kings, is quite a challenge for the voices but the poem is very moving and the conclusion of the carol brings a sense of real resolution.
The choir here appears from the photograph on the back cover on the booklet to consist of only fourteen singers, but the interior of the booklet lists forty names and the volume that the choir produces certainly reinforces the impression of the larger number. Even so one could imagine the Tennyson setting Ring out, wild bells with an even larger body of sound. The acoustic of the Wimbledon church is ideal for these performances, giving a fine ring to the sound without blurring the inner voices.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Rejoice! Jonathan Dove has rediscovered the part-song, and he has done it proud.