This will turn out to be, I am sure, one of my favorite recordings
of 2012. I first came upon Jonathan Dove’s music on a Hyperion
recording of his sacred music, featuring the Wells Cathedral
Choir, conducted by Matthew Owens (2010). Over the last year
I have occasionally returned to that CD, each time coming away
more impressed by Dove’s writing. This new CD has only confirmed
and strengthened that impression.
The recording opens with The Passing of the Year, a
song-cycle written for double chorus and piano, dedicated in
memory of Dove’s mother. The work, which is made up of seven
movements divided into three main sections, takes the listener
literally and metaphorically through changing seasons. Thankfully,
Naxos does not follow its increasingly common practice of making
the listener go to its website to search out the texts though
they can be found here.
Listening with the poetry at hand only increased my admiration
for Dove’s sensitive text setting.
The work opens with Invocation, the voices repeatedly
singing “O Earth, return!” with an ever increasing intensity.
This leads into an extended setting of William Blake’s The
narrow bud opens her beauties to the sun, that features
contrasting textures of soloist versus choir and high versus
low voice to convey the idea of “Summer breaking forth.” The
third movement sets Emily Dickinson’s Answer July as
a call and response between female and male voices that perfectly
captures the playfulness of the text. Movement 4 begins the
second section begins with Hot Sun, cool fire, a setting
of words by George Peele that uses slowly shifting dissonant
chords to evoke how difficult it can be to breathe, let alone
move, on a brutally hot summer day. The cycle’s emotional climax
is found in Movement 6, a setting of Thomas Nashe’s Adieu!
Farewell earth’s bliss. Over an ostinato that bares a passing
resemblance to the final minutes of Stravinsky’s Symphony
of Psalms, one of the choirs intones “Lord, have mercy
on us,” as the other choir sings, in achingly beautiful harmonies,
about the inevitability of death.
Three times these competing choral textures break off so that
all voices can join together in singing “I am sick, I must die”.
Even after listening several times, Dove’s setting leaves me
shaken. The sadness of that movement is effectively dispelled
by the final Ring out, wild bells, a passage from Alfred
Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam that speaks of the promises
found in the beginning of a New Year.
The rest of the program is just as impressive as the Song Cycle,
and displays a greater variety of musical styles, including
a solo for mezzo-soprano (My love is mine), three songs
for upper voice/women’s choir (It sounded as if the streets
were running). The CD is rounded out with Advent and Christmas
music, including The Three Kings, written for Festival
of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge.
Dove’s music is impressive, with attractive melodies and tonal
harmonic writing. Nevertheless, he is not afraid to use dissonance
when it more strongly projects and expresses the text, and his
writing displays a particularly strong skill in creating onomatopoeic
effects. When I began my listening, I thought it would be helpful
to note where Dove’s writing seemed reminiscent of other composers’
work. Sometimes the piano writing, which often uses ostinato
figures, reminds me of the minimalists Steven Reich and John
Adams. A few of Dove’s melodies soar in a way that recalls Samuel
Barber. Answer July brings thoughts of Benjamin Britten’s
“Ballad of the Green Broom” from Five Flower Songs.
I share these comments not to suggest that Dove is in any way
a derivative composer, but rather to express how highly I rate
his work. Dove is very much his own man, with masterly word
setting that reminds me most strongly of Benjamin Britten and,
on this side of the Atlantic, Libby Larsen.
Dove receives the strongest advocacy from his performers. The
Convivium Singers, under the assured direction of Neil Ferris,
display admirable control of the long line and excellent intonation.
I find the balance to be a bit dominated by the women’s voices,
and would not have minded a few more men in each section. But
the balance never detracted from my immense enjoyment of this
recording. Accompanist Christopher Cromar’s playing is splendid,
self-effacing virtuosity that serves the choir and the music.
I urge you to purchase this CD as quickly as possible. It is
gorgeous and poignant music, performed with wholehearted fervor
by an excellent choir, all at budget price.
David A. McConnell
See also review by Paul