A Multitude of Voices - World War I Centenary in Choral Song
Track listing below review
Susan Fairbairn (soprano); Fournier Trio
Recording date and venue not specified
CONVIVIUM CR026 [69:40]
In 2013 I reviewed
a fine disc by Christopher Watson and Sospiri, entitled The Lost
City - Lamentations Through the Ages. I mentioned then that I had
learned from their website that they had plans for a project to commission
a number of composers to write pieces commemorating the centenary of
the Great War with a view to recording them all. Here are the fruits
of that project, though not all the composers whose names were first
associated with the project are now represented; perhaps their pieces
will materialise in due course.
Even so, a wide range of composers has contributed to the project and
each has provided a booklet note about their respective compositions.
In a general preface the composer John Duggan, co-founder with Christopher
Watson of Sospiri and himself a tenor in the group, explains the motives
behind the project. One driver was to expand the choral repertoire for
remembrance. Just as importantly, “we wanted…a collection
that offered a broader view of the war, reaching beyond the dichotomy
of war is noble/war is hell.” So the composers were encouraged
to range widely in their hunt for suitable texts. As a result, as well
as poets such as Rupert Brooke, Ivor Gurney and Wilfred Owen we find
war poets such as Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, whose poetry is
less frequently set to music. Beyond the British war poets we also encounter
settings of Apollinaire, Seán Street (b. 1946) and the German poet August
There’s some interesting music here, all of it, with two exceptions,
for a cappella choir. The exceptions are the first two pieces
by John Duggan. In these he has ingeniously devised, from their respective
writings, conversations between Wilfred Owen and his mother (The
Empty Page) and Edward Thomas and his wife, Helen (As it was).
These are set for soprano and tenor soloists with piano trio accompaniment.
The singers aren’t credited: I’m guessing that the soprano
is Susan Fairbairn; maybe the tenor is the composer himself. They sing
I liked very much the three short pieces by the American, Frank Ferko
(b. 1950), a composer new to me. He has modelled these three Apollinaire
settings on Ravel’s Trois Chansons (1914) and seems to
me to have captured the French style very nicely. Cecilia McDowall’s
Standing as I do before God is a tribute to Edith Cavell, the
nurse executed by the Germans in 1915 for helping wounded Allied prisoners
to escape. Some of Cavell’s own words are juxtaposed with specially
written lines by Seán Street. Susan Fairbairn has an important role
here and, perhaps fittingly, the soprano voice – solo and choral
– is to the fore in this touching and sincere elegy.
I’ve admired David Bednall’s music before and I like his
Three Songs of Remembrance. The first, a setting of one of
Rupert Brooke’s 1914 Sonnets is deliberately simple and the gentle
melancholy and light textures are very appealing. The second piece,
a setting of Lights Out by Edward Thomas, is fittingly a darker,
minor-key composition. The third piece sets a poem May 1915
by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) and here Bednall uses the first line, “Let
us remember Spring will come again”, as an oft-repeated refrain
to bind together the structure of his piece.
Colin Mawby (b. 1936) is, I suspect, the only one of these composers
old enough to have experienced war directly – he writes that he
lived through the bombing of Portsmouth during the Second World War.
He takes for his text a poem by Tom Kettle, an Irishman killed at the
Battle of the Somme. Mawby’s response to the words is intense;
at first poignant and then jagged. To the poem he appends, very appropriately,
the Beatitude, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers…’ for
which he writes music that is gently beseeching.
At the end of the programme the pieces by Alexander L’Estrange
and Francis Pott are imaginatively placed together. The links between
them are rain and the poetry of Edward Thomas. L’Estrange uses
only lines by Thomas while Pott interweaves lines by Thomas and Isaac
Rosenberg. The poem used by L’Estrange is concerned with rain
– his setting features an important baritone solo, which is very
well done here, and some interesting harmonic turns in the choral writing.
Francis Pott points out in his note that Thomas was in some mental turmoil
even before the war began and Rosenberg was gravely troubled and affected
by what he experienced at the front. Pott’s setting of their words
is appropriately intense and restless.
There’s some challenging and stimulating listening here and this
Sospiri World War I centenary project must be counted a success because
it has expanded the choral repertory related to the Great War very successfully.
The performances are all very accomplished indeed and the choir has
been very nicely recorded. The booklet is very good in many ways: it
includes all the texts – which is important because many are unfamiliar
– and useful notes by each of the composers. Sadly, there are
some irritating omissions of little but important points of detail:
soloists are uncredited and nowhere could I find information about when
and where these recordings were made.
David BEDNALL (b. 1979)
Three Songs of Remembrance [12:35]
Cecilia McDOWALL (b. 1951)
Standing as I do before God [6:39]
Frank FERKO (b. 1950)
Trois Chansons de Guerre [4:16]
John DUGGAN (b. 1963)
The Empty Page [3:04]
Colin MAWBY (b. 1936)
If I Live [4:51]
John DUGGAN (b. 1963)
As it was [2:25]
Richard ALLAIN (b. 1965)
John DUGGAN (b. 1963)
Alexander L’ESTRANGE (b.1974)
Francis POTT (b. 1957)