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Gabriel JACKSON (b. 1962)
The Voice of the Bard (2007) [6:59]
Ruchill Linn (2012) [9:10]
Airplane Cantata (2011) [16:39]
Winter Heavens (2011) [6:02]
Choral Symphony (2013)  [26:48]
BBC Singers/David Hill; James Morgan
Rex Lawson (pianola)
rec. 2011-14, St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge; BBC Studios, Maida Vale. DDD
English texts included.

I think it would not be an exaggeration to describe Gabriel Jackson as a ‘hot property’ when it comes to choral music – though he has composed in other genres too. His choral music is widely performed and well represented on CD. In addition to individual works that have been included in mixed programmes, if you search under his name on MusicWeb International you’ll find that we have reviewed several previous discs devoted exclusively to his choral music. These have been collections consisting either entirely or mainly of sacred music. That makes this new CD all the more welcome since the music that the BBC Singers have selected is secular in nature.

With the exception of The Voice of the Bard – the only one of these pieces that has been recorded before – the music on this CD was composed by Jackson for the BBC Singers when he was their Associate Composer (2010-13). In fact he wrote no fewer than eight works for them during this period.

We owe The Voice of the Bard to the BBC also because the Corporation commissioned it for the BBC Radio 3 Choir of the Year 2006, Chantage and their conductor James Davey. They gave its first performance at the British Composer Awards in London in December 2007. It’s the only piece on this programme that I’ve heard before; it was included on a fine Jackson disc by the State Choir Latvija that came to me for review a little while ago. It’s a setting of William Blake and the text inspired Jackson to write music the tone of which is ecstatic and exciting, even in slower, quieter passages. Ruchill Linn sets a poem by the Scottish poet, Robin Bell, describing a scene in his native Perthshire. The word ‘linn’ is a Scottish dialect word for ‘waterfall’ and there are also images of a curlew in the poem. Jackson’s liquid, overlapping textures suggest the waterfall very acutely and his seemingly ever-moving, intertwining vocal lines evoke both birds in flight and running water. Winter Heavens is a setting of lines by George Meredith. The text is complex and perhaps that’s why I found it harder to come to terms with this piece despite the interest of the music itself.

There are two substantial works on the disc. Airplane Cantata was stimulated by Gabriel Jackson’s fascination with aviation. Here he draws his tests from a variety of sources and weaves them into a seven-section work of which the fifth is a short instrumental piece. The instrument in question is a pianola, here played with great virtuosity by Rex Lawson. The subject of the cantata is the early history of flight up to the late 1930s, though some of the chosen texts were penned long before man took to the skies.

I’m not sure how well this piece works, though the music is full of interest. The often-busy pianola part may not be to all tastes. I wonder if Jackson chose it because its sound might be suggestive of the clatter of an early aero engine. If so, the idea works well in the third section, ‘Flight’ where the women’s voices have long, soaring lines underpinned by an incessantly active pianola part. If the intention was to suggest the freedom of flight but that we rely on mechanical means to achieve that flying freedom then the effect works very well indeed. Elsewhere the pianola part is sometimes a distraction. There are also aspects of the text selection and setting which I find less than wholly convincing. In the second section, ‘Take-off’ the choir sings a contemporary newspaper account of the first flight by the Wright brothers. I’m not entirely sure that this prose is a good choice for singing though what does work well is the mounting excitement in the music as the words describe the take-off and the primitive plane breaking free of the ground. Later, in the penultimate section the choir sings quietly a perceptively prophetic text by Sir George Cayley (1773-1857) in which he expresses confidence that one day man will take to the skies. Over this a speaker (Charles Gibbs) reads a series of facts about aviation between 1911 and the late 1930s. The trouble is – for me – that his words obscure the choral element too much. However, the concluding section, ‘Chorale-Coda’ is much better. Here the choir sings Whitman-esque words by Hart Crane (1899-1932). Their music is in block chords, decorated by the pianola, and it rises to an ecstatic climax before dying away to a hushed close. Airplane Cantata is an interesting work but I’m unsure it will last the test of time, unlike many other Jackson choral works that I’ve heard.

The Choral Symphony is quite another matter. This is a work that I’m sure has ‘legs’ though it will remain, I suspect, the preserve of virtuoso ensembles for it sounds to me as if the score makes prodigious demands on the choir. Written as the climax to Jackson’s association with the BBC Singers, I carelessly missed the broadcast of the first performance in October 2012 while the BBC Singers were on tour in Denmark. I’m delighted to catch up with it now in this excellent recording.

The work is a celebration of London and Jackson has drawn on a wide variety of sources for his four-movement work. All but one of the thirteen texts is in English – the exception is a brief contribution from the Roma poet, Tacitus. The texts range from the sixteenth century to the present day. Like everything else on the disc, except Airplane Cantata the choir is unaccompanied and there are several solos, all sung by members of the choir. Prodigious virtuosity is required in the first movement, not least in terms of articulating the rhythmic vitality of the music. The second movement, which is the longest, is nocturne-like and contains a lot of very atmospheric and beautiful writing for voices. The scherzo sets a vigorously contemporary poem by George the Poet (b. 1991). The music is very fast and energetic and the choir is required to speak as well as sing. The precision of the BBC Singers is amazing. The final movement sets four more texts plus the few words by Tacitus. Though the music is fascinating I had a sense that this movement is a bit disjointed compared to the others. Nonetheless, this Choral Symphony is an important work and its first recording is a conspicuous success.

Throughout this exciting and demanding programme the BBC Singers perform with the virtuosity which we’re accustomed to hearing from them. They’re under the assured direction of David Hill except for the Airplane Cantata, for which James Morgan is at the controls. Gabriel Jackson’s music receives splendid advocacy here and this disc will be a mandatory purchase for all his admirers, especially as all the pieces, with the exception of The Voice of the Bard, are appearing on disc for the first time.

John Quinn