Songs of Springtime
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Songs of Springtime (1930) [16:16]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Three Choral Songs Op.18 (1890) [10:40]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
My Love's an Arbutus [2:06]
Peace Come Away [3:23]
Phoebe [2:56]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
The shower (1914) [2:56]
Robert PEARSALL (1795-1856)
Lay a Garland (1840) [2:56]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
How calmly the evening (1907) [4:36]
James BENNET (c.1575 - after 1614)
All creatures now (1601) [2:09]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Three Shakespeare Songs (1951) [7:05]
Musica Beata/Peter Hanke, Paul Hedley (Pearsall)
rec. St. Michael and All Angels Church Summertown, Oxford England; November 2011

This is a thoroughly charming CD. Recitals such as this tend to be unique by the composition of the programme rather the content itself. So it proves here. All of the repertoire is well known and easily available on a mixture of other CDs. Yet for sheer quality of execution and musicianship this new disc must be considered the equal of most. John Rutter's justly famous There is Sweet Music - English Choral Songs 1890-1950 disc from Continuum with his Cambridge Singers sets the standard for this type of recital and although the engineering now sounds less appealing than some the content and execution remains a touch-stone for excellence.
I had not heard the choir Musica Beata before and they are yet another group to have sprung from the fertile musical soil of the Oxford and Cambridge universities. Certainly they share with other similar choirs a beautifully blended and refined tone allied to a sensitive awareness of the text. The liner lists just thirteen singers; three to a part in the standard SATB division with a fourth bass. None of the music is rare but all is a pleasure to hear again. Moeran's Songs of Springtime open the disc and gives it its title. This seven-song cycle is Moeran's tribute to the Elizabethan madrigalists. The texts are all taken from that time, yet set with just enough bittersweet harmony to show its 20th century roots. They are an acknowledged masterpiece in the genre and receive an excellent performance here. As mentioned the choir are fully sensitive to the nuances of the music and text but this never tips over into an overly-arch or knowing manner. I would count this the most satisfactory of the three versions I know - the Finzi Singers on Chandos (as part of a Moeran/Warlock recital which importantly includes Moeran's other cycle Phyllida & Corydon) and the City Chamber choir on BMS who add some very interesting Benjamin and Leslie Howard. All three performances are fine in their own right but Musica Beata shade the field.
The inclusion of all three Op.18 part-songs by Elgar is welcome although they are not a 'set' as such. If the scale of the choir was ideal for the Moeran there is an argument that says a larger group can pay dividends in this Elgar. The Finzi Singers again provide comparison and they choose a less blended more overtly Romantic approach - here I find the choice harder to make. I prefer Musica Beata's sound but the Finzi's style. Next is a little triptych of Stanford which as so often show him to be a composer of real craft and skill. Again these are beautifully performed and relatively rare. Of considerable interest is the inclusion of a pair of pre-20th century works. Robert Pearsall's Lay a Garland from 1840 pays a debt of musical gratitude to Renaissance Italian music rather than the English Madrigal tradition. This is an absolute gem and is performed with some brilliance by the choir. I like very much the way they mould their collective tone to suit this markedly different style - it’s an altogether more austere yet sensuous. Again the carefully balanced and blended choral sound pays major dividends. My only sorrow is that it lasts less than three minutes! John Bennet's All Creatures Now is his well-known contribution to Thomas Morley's Triumphs of Oriana. Itprovides the listener with a reference point from which most of the rest of the programme sprang.
The disc closes with the glorious Three Shakespeare Songs by Vaughan Williams. Although the total time is less than seven minutes in performance these form a miniature masterpiece which crystallises the very best of both the composer and the genre. Dating from 1951 they are yet another product of the composer's extraordinary Indian Summer. They also reflect Vaughan Williams' genius for selecting apposite texts both for their suitability and interest as lyrics and for their intrinsic beauty. From the outset the word-painting, with its depiction of tolling bells is masterly. Rutter's Cambridge Singers are unsurpassed here. If anything this is the only time Musica Beata disappointed me. Rutter's singers keep a brighter and more pert sound on the consonant 'n' of "Ding" - and the music shimmers and sounds more well ... bell-like. Musica Beata allow their sound fractionally to sag and the moment is lost. The central song: The cloud-capp'd towers contains one of Vaughan Williams' great sequences of chord progressions. The text for this song comes from The Tempest and contains the famous lines "We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep." Again - Rutter's choir must take the laurel as they do in the closing quick-silver Over Hill Over Dale. The larger choir and more distant recording give the work that mercurial wispy elusiveness it surely requires. For all the skill of their singing Musica Beata sound too literal and earthbound. So that means a slightly disappointing close to a fine recital. Collectors of this repertoire will accept duplication of music as par for the course so they are likely to already possess alternatives for most of the music here.
Other factors to consider are a good but quite close recording, a brief almost pointless liner lacking enough information for the newcomer and any depth for those already versed in the field. The booklet cover does have an appropriate and rather appealing detail from a Van Gogh painting. Of greater concern is a meagre playing time of less than fifty-five minutes. With so much repertoire to choose from I would have thought an extra quarter hour's worth at least could have been programmed. Quantity for quantity's sake should never be sanctioned but this 'feels' short in the listening. Overall though a most enjoyable set of performances of beautiful music. 

Nick Barnard
A most enjoyable set of performances of beautiful music.