Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
There Was a Child [50:47]
Joan Rodgers (soprano); Toby Spence (tenor)
CBSO Chorus; CBSO Youth Chorus; CBSO Children’s Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Halsey
rec. live, Symphony Hall, Birmingham, 18 June 2011
SIGNUM SIGCD285 [50:47]
Written at the behest of his parents, There Was a Child is a profoundly impressive work that honours the life of Robert Pickering. His mother Rosemary writes in the liner-notes that “Since my childhood, music - especially choral music - has given my life meaning, so commissioning a piece to celebrate my son Robert’s life seemed cathartic …” Robert died in June 1999 while snorkelling in Thailand; he was not yet 20 years old. Richard’s father had been a part of Dove’s first opera, Flight, and both he and Rosemary felt Dove was the best choice for such a commission. One can only guess at the complicated web of emotions and concerns that Mr. Dove must have felt in completing this commission. Yet he has succeeded brilliantly, setting seven different poems with music that Rosemary says “completely captured Robert’s spirit”, and how powerfully that spirit comes across in this fabulous performance from Birmingham.
I am the Song/Birth bursts forth with a powerful fortissimo chord capped by a cymbal crash, the music propelling itself forward with boundless energy. Dove’s orchestration, features pointillist streaks of orchestral colour, and in tandem with the music’s incessant rhythmic drive, remind one of John Adams’ Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. After a brief orchestral prelude, the multiple chorus’ enter, first in unison, then in imitative polyphony, then tossing the melody between the various choral forces. Their music reaches a climax and quickly winds down for the first soprano solo. Here is found the performance slightly problematic. There is no doubting Joan Rodgers’ complete commitment to the music she sings, but her voice has a pronounced vibrato, which becomes distracting whenever she moves above the stave. This movement flows right into the next poem, Childhood, where there is a beautiful call and response between the soloists and choirs, the music now a perfect evocation of the words of calm and peace. Toby Spence sings with greater clarity of diction than Ms. Rodgers, yet he too tends to develop a large warble when singing loud. In fact, the solo voices are balanced too far forward in the sound field, which unfortunately displays and magnifies even the smallest vocal imperfection.
The next two movements,A Song About Myself and From all the Jails the Boys and Girls are light-hearted, playful settings, the former sung with fabulous diction and enthusiasm by the Children’s Chorus, while the latter again brings a kaleidoscope of orchestral colour and some virtuosic singing from the main CBSO Chorus. Over the Fence perfectly captures the impish temptation to climb the fence to taste the strawberries. I found myself smiling for the entire movement.
The next movement, All Shod with Steel, sets a different mood, perhaps expressing the change in moods one begins to experience in the teenage years, while Romance is a touching description of the beginning pangs of love and greater awareness of the world’s darkness. Again, Dove’s orchestration is masterly - complementing and enhancing the setting of the words, while never overwhelming the singers. I was often reminded of Britten’s orchestral writing in the chamber operas and War Requiem. My intent is not to suggest that Dove is mimicking Britten, but rather to suggest that Dove’s word-setting, like Britten’s, is carefully worked out and always sensitive to the emotional import of the words.
With the final movements, it becomes apparent that we are to experience not only the joyous, playful spirit of Robert, but that we must also share in his tragic loss of life. High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)immediately establishes a darker, more menacing mood, building to a terrifying climax at 3:50, followed by the choir’s mournful intoning of “my tale was heard, and yet it was not told; My fruit is fall’n, and yet my leaves are green.” It is a harrowing moment, the tragedy made both overwhelmingly personal and universal at the same time. The soprano then enters, “Grief fills the room up of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me.” The choir continues to sing the music and words of the previous section, as if the child is still trying to communicate with its grieving mother. The music grows weaker and more muted, ending with the tolling of a bell.
While the notes make no mention of this, the final movement seems very much modelled on the latter half of Britten’s War Requiem. The baritone enters unaccompanied, singing There was a child went forth every day.Here the father character creates the moment of catharsis, accepting the loss, coming to terms with it to move past it. A similar moment of catharsis happens in Britten’s work, where the baritone sings “I am the enemy you killed my friend…let us sleep now. Much like the end of Britten’s great work, here Dove has the soloists and all the choirs join together for the first time, as the music finds greater light and repose, in part by recalling the opening theme of the first movement. The work’s end is spellbinding, a sense of peaceful acceptance convincingly found.
The recording itself is very fine, although I would prefer a greater depth and presence to the bass. This is a large soundstage, with excellent front-to-back perspective. Full texts are provided, and the liner-notes also include a brief but articulate note by the composer. As stated at the beginning of this review, this is a significant work, one of the most important works I have heard in the last decade. I was very touched by the music and the performance. Signum is to be thanked for taking the initiative to record this performance.
David A. McConnell
Powerful spiritual communication in this fabulous performance. I was very touched by the music and the performance.
see also review by John Quinn
I am the song/Birth [6:59]
A Song About Myself [3:17]
From all the Jails the Boys and Girls [2:34]
Over the Fence [2:03]
All shod with steel [3:28]
New Worlds/High Flight [11:32]
There Was a Child [11:46]