RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Gary HIGGINSON (b. 1952)
Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Seven Songs of William Blake (Set 1), Opus 33 (1977) [14:45]
Motet: Et omnes eandem escam spiritualem ederunt, Opus 130 (1996) [3:21]
Six Birds, Opus 161 (2009) [4:46]
Two Studies for solo harp, Opus 132 [4:11]
Songs with harp:
Miri it is, Opus 53 no. 2 [1:07]
How beautiful is the rain, Opus 53 no. 3 (1983) [1:42]
Ceres’ Song from The Tempest, Opus 154 no. 8 [2:22]
Fairies’ Song, Opus 154 No. 7 (1999) [2:29]
Over Hill, over dale Opus 154 no. 9 (1999) [1:31]
Lead kindly light (from Requiem), Opus 111 (1991) [4:50]
A song of joy, Opus 165 no. 2 (2011) [8:26]
A last confession, Opus 137 no. 2 [2:16]
Seven Songs of William Blake (Set 2), Opus 55 (1979-1982) [24:42]
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano) Danielle Perrett (harp)
The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge; Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir/Sarah
rec. 12-13 July 2011, St George’s Church, Chesterton, Cambridge. DDD
REGENT REGCD381 [76:49]
This is the first disc of music by Herefordshire-based composer Gary Higginson.
Born in West Bromwich in 1952, he studied under the great English symphonist
Edmund Rubbra and, later on, with Patric Standford, Buxton Orr and John Joubert.
The influence of Rubbra is occasionally apparent, as is also that of Britten.
This is a curious mixture because Rubbra was certainly not an admirer of the
Aldeburgh master, as Stephen Banfield’s biography of Finzi makes clear.
This disc makes a very strong case for viewing Higginson as Rubbra’s most
distinguished pupil and successor, certainly in the field of vocal music. Higginson’s
music is always his own, despite the abovementioned influences. The essential
aspects of his style are a powerful sense of musical space, where even the smallest
gesture tells effectively and a strong underlying lyricism, which links his
music to the great tradition of English church music. Above and beyond this,
there is a genuine sense of humanity, a feature sometimes lacking in many modern
liturgical settings, which often are notable only for their greyness. It is
interesting that Higginson has chosen to eschew the use of extended contemporary
vocal techniques, making a decision to pare his music down to essentials. The
glorious “A song of joy” triumphantly proves that a contemporary
piece can sound modern and fresh without the use of these gimmicks.
The “Seven Songs of William Blake” [Set 1] open the disc most effectively
and demonstrate the composer’s affinity with this remarkable poet and
artist, who has inspired so many creative minds from Samuel Palmer to Parry
and Vaughan Williams. Structurally, the set is laid out as a theme and variations,
with the original melody being of Fourteenth Century Catalan provenance. The
motet “Et omnes eandem” is very strong indeed, with its bold and
powerful harmonies. The brief but enjoyable “Six Birds” have Brittenesque
touches, yet remain very individual. Britten’s influence is also detectable
in “How Beautiful is the rain”, which is in the tradition of “A
Ceremony of Carols”. This striking piece has nothing to fear from a comparison
with its illustrious predecessor. Britten never wrote a melody as achingly gorgeous
as “Ceres’ Song from The Tempest” and, in my opinion,
Higginson has a lyrical gift that easily outclasses the often obsessively narrow
range of Britten’s thematic ideas. “Over hill, over dale”
is equally attractive and would make a superb introduction to Higginson’s
work if it was aired on Classic FM. It is quintessentially English.
Higginson’s “Requiem” was written in memory of his father
but has remained unperformed since its composition in 1991. The central movement,
“Lead kindly light”, is extraordinarily heartfelt as performed on
this CD and makes the present reviewer eager to hear the rest of this piece.
“A song of joy” is, in many ways, the most remarkable and affecting
work on the disc. Most listeners will fall in love with this piece immediately
and reach for the repeat buttons on their CD players as soon as this track has
finished. All the strengths of Higginson’s compositional style are on
display here; harmonic warmth, textural clarity and masterly deployment of musical
space. The ending is most moving and this work must surely take a place in the
“A last confession” is a touching realisation of a poem by Rossetti,
unusually written in Italian. The “Seven Songs of William Blake”
[Set 2] are arguably even finer than the first set and familiar texts such as
“Tyger, tiger, burning bright” are invested with notable intensity.
This second set is a double theme and variations based (like Set 1) on Fourteenth
Century Catalan material. There is a maturity and technical mastery here that
raise this work above the earlier set.
The performances are truly sensitive and perceptive. Sarah MacDonald ensures
crisply unanimous choral textures from the wonderful Ely Cathedral Girls’
Choir and the superb Selwyn College Chapel Choir, who clearly revel in this
highly communicative music. Charlotte de Rothschild, the distinguished soprano,
gives an inspired performance, her voice encompassing the highest notes with
marvellous ease. The harpist, Danielle Perrett, is equally effective and gives
a touching reading of the “Two Studies”.
The recorded sound is excellent, achieving an ideal blend of clarity and acoustical
warmth. The booklet notes by the composer himself are both interesting and informative.
This splendid disc should be greeted with the greatest enthusiasm. It is a magnificent
introduction to an unjustly overlooked contemporary composer.
A magnificent introduction to an unjustly overlooked contemporary composer.