Not long ago I reviewed
a recent disc by the Saint Louis Chamber Chorus and Philip Barnes. I remarked then that I had heard and reviewed all their discs with the exception of a collection of music by Sir Granville Bantock. Now I’m able to rectify that omission and I’m very pleased to do so for this is an excellent addition to the Bantock discography.
The choir’s director, Philip Barnes, has contributed the excellent notes for this release and in them he comments that a fair number of Bantock’s works have now become available on CD. Hyperion – who else? – led the way with no fewer than six discs of orchestral music conducted by the late and still-lamented Vernon Handley (review
). Chandos weighed in with another Handley enterprise, Omar Khayyám
). Several other independent labels have played their part too with the result that if you search under Bantock’s name on MusicWeb International you’ll be directed to a gratifyingly large number of reviews of recordings of his music. However, one aspect of Bantock’s art that has not yet been greatly explored on disc, so far as I know, is his unaccompanied choral music, which makes this recital from St Louis all the more valuable. As can be seen from the track-listing the majority of the programme that Philip Barnes has assembled consists of pieces receiving their first recording.
Though the music is new to me it seems that the recorded premières could not be in better hands than those of Philip Barnes and the St Louis choir. I’ve been impressed by the high standard of their singing every time I’ve heard them on disc and this is no exception. The sound that the choir makes is consistently pleasing. The blend and balance are excellent, as is the tuning, while the clarity with which they enunciate both notes and words is admirable. I can only think that the music must have been new to all of them yet it is sung with assurance and commitment. In short the music could scarcely receive better advocacy.
These pieces are well worth rescuing from the oblivion into which they’ve sunk. The programme gets off to a strong start with Bantock’s setting of the Prologue to the epic poem The Golden Journey to Samarkand
by James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915). It’s not easy to date some of these compositions but the piece will post-date the poem itself, which was written in 1913. How it must have appealed to Bantock with his great interest in the Orient. Philip Barnes describes the setting as ‘stirring’ and so it is. However, the sheer romance of the words might have been expected to inspire Bantock to compose in an even more overtly excited fashion than was the case; I was a little surprised – pleasantly – by the restrained tone of much of the music and also by how imaginatively Bantock responded to the words; each of the seven stanzas is treated very differently.
The piece that follows was written within a few days of the sinking of the Titanic
. Bantock’s choice of words from Psalm 107 – ‘They that go down to the sea in ships – is very appropriate and the music is sincerely felt. A poignant little footnote is related in the notes: the copies used for this recording came from the music library at the cathedral in Cork near the Irish port of Cobh, Titanic
’s last landfall before her fateful voyage.
A couple of the pieces reflect Bantock’s love for and fascination with all things Scottish. Coronach
is a setting of a lament by Sir Walter Scott and it’s very touching. Even more affecting is The Mermaids Croon
. The words are those of a Gaelic folksong, set and sung in the original language. It’s an exquisite, haunting lullaby. The fine performance includes an excellent contribution from soprano soloist, Emily Heslop, a member of the choir. She also features in the preceding item, The Lake Isle of Innisfree
, a beguiling and effortlessly simple setting of lines by W.B. Yeats.
The Three Choruses for Male Voices
comprise a short setting of some lines from the Greek tragedy Agamemnon
by Aeschylus in a translation by Robert Graves followed by more extended settings of two original poems by Graves. The music sounds technically challenging, especially in the last two pieces and it’s all extremely well sung. If I’m less gripped by this music I think it’s because I strongly prefer mixed choir music to pieces for either male or female voice choirs.
A Pageant of Human Life
, the work which gives the album its title, is an interesting work. Philip Barnes describes it as the third in Bantock’s series of choral symphonies, though to me it appears surprisingly short to be counted in that category. I bow to his greater knowledge but it seems more like a suite of eight short movements – in this performance all the sections apart from the last take less than two minutes to perform. The texts are a series of short stanzas written, apparently during his childhood, by Sir Thomas More (1487-1535). Bantock sets the various movements for different combinations of voices and even includes a children’s choir in three of the movements. Here the children’s choir is from a St. Louis school, Parkway North High School Choir, and they do very well. One of the two most impressive movements are the fifth, ‘Death’, where the St. Louis choir very audibly and effectively obeys the composer’s request to sing ‘sardonico’. The other highlight is the closing section, ’Lady Eternity’. This opens with some luxuriantly expansive choral writing and, happily, Bantock allows us to hear a reprise of this material in the closing bars.
The last item on this programme was nearly part of another choral symphony. It seems that Bantock planned such a work setting words by Walt Whitman – a poet whose verses, you might think, were tailor-made for this composer. Bantock’s journal contains a very explicit entry for 2 January 1913 recording that he had completed the setting of Darest thou now, O Soul
‘which is to be the 5th
and last movement of the Walt Whitman choral Symphony’. However, it seems as if the project came to nothing and this movement remained unpublished and unperformed until a Bantock scholar, Dr Matthew Kickasola of Washington University, unearthed the manuscript in the composer’s archive in Birmingham City Library and brought it to the attention of Philip Barnes. He and his choir gave the first performance of the piece immediately prior to this recording for which they are joined, fittingly, by the Concert Choir of Dr Kickasola’s university. Here Bantock sets the same lines from Whitman’s Whispers of Heavenly Death
that Vaughan Williams selected for Toward the Unknown Region
. Though his writing is expansive Bantock’s setting is much more concise than RVW’s and his harmonic language is even more exploratory and adventurous at times. However, RVW wins hands down, I think, when it comes to the music for the final lines, ‘Then we burst forth….’ though, like Vaughan Williams, Bantock achieves an ecstatic ending to his piece.
By the way, Bantock's other two choral symphonies — Atalanta in Calydon
and Vanity of Vanities
— can be heard on Albany TROY 180. The dchoir is the BBC Singers conducted by Simon Joly.
This Regent disc comprises a fascinating collection and no Bantock enthusiast should be without it. The performances are first class as are Philip Barnes’ invaluable notes. The recorded sound is very good and, albeit belatedly, I’m delighted to welcome another excellent release from St. Louis.
Bantock discography & review index