John GARDNER (1917-2011)
Cantata for Christmas, Op. 82 (1966) [24:18]
Angels from the realms of Glory, Op 58/1 (1963) [2:23]
O little town of Bethlehem, Op 149/1(1980) [4:37]
Sunny Bank Carol, Op 141 (1977) [0:54]
Entry of the three Kings (1950) [4:41]
Good King Wenceslas, Op 75/1 (1965) [1:57]
Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, Op 75/2 (1965) [2:01]
The Holly and the Ivy, Op 58/2 (1963) [2:00]
We wish you a merry Christmas (1964) [1:43]
Chamber Concerto for Organ and 10 Players, Op. 102 (1969)* [15:05]
*Stephen King (organ); Mark Williams (piano)
City of London Choir; Paulina Voices
The Holst Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton; *Chris Gardner
rec. 6-7 October 2012, St. Paul’s Girls’ School; *2 October 2012, Brentwood Cathedral. DDD
EM RECORDS EMR CD009 [59:40]
Back in 2008 I reviewed a most enjoyable disc of orchestral music by John Gardner. Based on that experience I was delighted to receive this disc containing more music by him, much of which was previously unknown to me.
Most of the programme content is Christmas music. The exception is the Chamber Concerto. This was written for the inauguration of the organ at Dartington College of Arts. The scoring is not only modest but also unusual: as well as the solo instrument Gardner calls for oboe, bassoon, horn, trumpet, percussion and string quintet. Such scoring might raise the fear that the organ might overwhelm the accompaniment, especially in this instance a large cathedral instrument. However, Gardner’s scoring is cunning and the organist never overwhelms his colleagues, though it’s possible, of course, that on this occasion the microphones have helped a little. If so that’s acceptable because on a recording one needs to hear as much as possible.
It’s a pithy, attractive work. In his notes the composer’s son, Chris, quotes his father confiding to his diary during the composition “It comes, but with ill grace”. To be honest, the listener would find it hard – if not impossible – to detect the “ill grace”. The first movement opens, unusually, with an extended passage for solo double bass, played pizzicato. The choice of instrument and the syncopated rhythms give a jazz flavour and when the organ becomes the second instrument that we hear the slightly jazzy rhythms continue. The strings have a second subject which is a touch more lyrical but overall the perkiness remains. Chris Gardner applies the term “neo-baroque” to the second movement. I agree: it seems to me to have some of Stravinsky’s piquancy. The finale, in Chris Gardner’s words, “develops a couple of cheerful and capricious themes with plenty of good humour and cross-rhythms galore.” The music is extrovert and puckish – and great fun. I love the delicate little pay-off at the end. This concerto makes for very pleasant listening; it’s entertaining. It’s not a virtuoso work, more a conversation between eleven musicians with the organist as primus inter pares. That’s not to diminish in any way the performance of Stephen King, who plays excellently, as do his colleagues. This is the work’s first recording; it’s a welcome addition to the catalogue and it was a nice touch to invite the composer’s son, Chris to conduct this recording.
Half of the eight carols are also receiving their first recordings. John Gardner became Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in 1962 and so it’s appropriate that not only should all the vocal music have been recorded there but also that the Paulina Voices should be on hand to join in some of the carols. This is a choir that comprises girls from the top four years at St. Paul’s and they more than justify their involvement; there are some good voices in this choir. They are heard to particularly good advantage in Gardner’s best-known composition, Tomorrow shall be my dancing day, of which they give a fine, spirited performance. Among the other carols The Holly and the Ivy is a jolly setting; I’m not surprised to read that it was “a wow” at its first performance. Also worthy of note is Entry of the three Kings. I’ve heard this before. It was written for the annual Nativity Play at Springhead, the family home of Henry (Rolf) Gardiner. Sir John Eliot Gardiner, who remembered the plays well from his childhood, recreated some of that music in his marvellous album Once as I Remember, which has just been reissued on Eloquence and he included John Gardner’s piece in that collection. It’s well worth hearing. You may be surprised at the unusually sprightly arrangement of Good King Wenceslas but it works well.
The main Christmas fare, however, comes in the shape of Cantata for Christmas, here recorded for the first time. This consists of seven short movements set for SATB choir and a modest orchestra. Each movement features a well-known carol or Christmas hymn – the chorale Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, or variances upon it, runs as a thread through several of the movements. I have to say that the first movement, which is a chorale-prelude on Wie schön leuchtet strikes me as a little bit dull and earnest. However, even if you agree with me – and you may not – persevere because things look up thereafter. There’s some attractive, light-footed music in the next movement, a short setting of Herrick’s Ode on the birth of our Saviour. Later, a setting of O magnum mysterium is restricted to the sopranos and altos, accompanied only by oboe and horn. The music is somewhat spare, almost austere, but it’s effective. There’s a festive setting of the tune we know as Unto us is born a Son and another austere setting, this time of the Coventry Carol. Finally, Gardner rounds things off with a fast-paced setting of In dulci jubilo. This movement is mainly a merry dance though the reappearance of Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern ushers in a calmly reflective ending.
I enjoyed this cantata though there were times when I wished for a bit more sparkle in the music. Though much of it is attractive I don’t find it as consistently appealing as, say, Geoffrey Bush’s winning A Christmas Cantata, which still awaits a complete recording. However, it’s an enjoyable piece and, like the Chamber Concerto, it’s a very welcome addition to the catalogue. The performance under Hilary Davan Wetton is committed. My one criticism is that the words aren’t always ideally clear and it’s a pity that no texts or translations are provided.
The recorded sound is good for all performances and, apart from the lack of texts, the documentation, in which Chris Gardner makes good use of his father’s diaries, is valuable. Once again EM Records have put English music lovers in their debt with another enterprising issue of music that deserves to be much better known.
Another enterprising issue from EM Records of English music that deserves to be much better known.
Hanah Parry-Ridout has also listened to this disc:
Now this is the sort of thing you could definitely give someone for Christmas. No-one will own recordings of these pieces already, as almost every piece has never been recorded before. Not only that, but it is great music which is well performed. John Gardner, who died last year, followed in the footsteps of Herbert Howells as Director of Music at St. Paul’s Girls’ School in Barnes, London which proved to be quite an inspiration to his choral writing. Many of the Christmas Carols on this disc were composed for, or first performed at the School, including Gardner’s most well known work; Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day, which is performed here by Paulina Voices, the auditioned choir of the older girls at St. Paul’s. The girls easily handle the complicated rhythms and provide a beautifully rich and even tone. The other carols are sung by the City of London Choir which also has a lovely warm tone, although the lower parts occasionally become heavy when deep in their registers. Especially well performed is the setting of O Little Town of Bethlehem which was written for an American publisher. It is a substantial choral work with intricate word setting. The choir achieve subtlety in their performance, which is rare with an amateur choir of such large forces. Entry of The Three Kings, which is scored for unaccompanied voices and oboe, suffers slightly. This harmonically complex piece has a huge dynamic range and the pitch wobbles at both extremes of the spectrum but the interplay of oboe and chorus creates a mysterious air. However, Hilary Davan Wetton has a secure hand on the rudder of this choir and they should all be very proud of their achievements with this recording.
The Cantata for Christmas was completed in 1966 and was described by Gardner in the book Twenty British Composers as “dull and insipid” and “lacking in warmth and spontaneity”. It is none of those things. Yes, sometimes warmth is lacking, but with good reason. The hymn Wie schoen leuchtet der Morgernstern is a thread which runs through the whole work whilst almost all the movements are based on familiar Christmas Carols. The first movement isn’t the most successful, or the most securely performed, yet it is an enjoyable piece. The second movement, written partly in the Dorian mode, inhabits some of those dark places that Britten gives light to, which are perfectly orchestrated to dramatic effect. The best performance is the third movement, an arrangement of what we know as Angels from the Realms of Glory. The vocal parts are quite straight-forward for much of this movement but the cunning instrumental writing, performed securely and in perfect balance, creates a unified entity which could be performed as a piece in its own right. The tuning is exposed in the mysterious fourth movement which is set for sopranos and altos with oboe and horn. The darkness returns in the sixth movement, Coventry Carol, which includes vocal soloists and is a miniature masterpiece. The final movement appears to be returning to a jovial mood but takes some sinister turns in the middle. This work demonstrates Gardner’s extremely skilful composition methods, the carols that are regularly performed don’t fully portray his mastery of the forces he chooses.
The final work on this CD is the Organ Concerto. After a slightly underwhelming beginning of solo bass pizzicato, the intentions of the first movement are stated and the jazz influences aren’t disguised. It all finally gets going in the development section of this sonata form movement. The organ takes centre stage and the orchestration becomes unified. This must have been very difficult to record. Brentwood Cathedral’s organ is huge and for Stephen King’s playing to be so clear is a credit to both performer and recording engineer. The second movement, entitled Duetto was composed using imitative-counterpoint. The organ playing is first rate but it would have helped the overall sound if the string players had tried to match the sound of the organ slightly more, perhaps using less vibrato, which would give a more unified blend of sounds. This happens when the oboe and bassoon take the foreground and the performance feels more rounded. The Finale trips along with great energy and whilst the tuning isn’t always spot-on, the cheerful movement contains enjoyable interplay of instruments. Whilst this piece doesn’t have the serious intentions of Howells’ Rhapsodies or the compositional dominance of Britten, it is an effective composition which makes an enjoyable conclusion to a lovely CD.
A great stocking-filler, accomplished music-making and unusual repertoire.