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Cantatas for Soprano

 

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Gordon GETTY (b.1933)
The little match girl [23.45]
A prayer for my daughter [13.22]
Poor Peter [9.21]
Joan and the bells (1998) [19.58]
Nikolai Schukoff (tenor), Melody Moore (soprano), Lester Lynch (baritone)
Bavarian Radio Choir, Munich Radio Orchestra/Asher Fisch; Ulf Schirmer
rec. Studio One, Bavarian Radio, Munich, November 2013 and April 2014
PENTATONE PTC5186480 SACD [66.59]

The little match girl is frequently classed among Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy stories; but it does not really fall comfortably into that category, containing as it does no supernatural elements apart from the rather sentimental religious gloss at the end. Even then the dying girl’s visions can be regarded as the product of her wandering imagination induced by starvation and cold. Instead it should be regarded as a miniature vignette built around the themes of social concern and child poverty in the nineteenth century. It inhabits much the same world as the novels of Andersen’s good friend Charles Dickens in whose house he stayed during a visit to London. This theme of social concern obviously appealed in its turn to Oscar Wilde, who included a very similar episode involving a starving match girl in his The happy prince – which clearly is a fairy story, with its non-realistic elements of a compassionate statue with a social conscience and a talkative swallow drawn to self-sacrifice. Incidentally, when are we going to get a CD release of the Argo recording of Malcolm Williamson’s children’s opera The happy prince, with a superlative adult cast and an orchestra containing not only the composer and Sir Richard Rodney Bennett as the piano duettists but also the very young Sir Neville Marriner as first violin? Tolkien, in his essay On fairy stories, effectively demolished the notion that fairy stories should be regarded as exclusively children’s fare, and The little match girl is a work that clearly reaches out well beyond an adolescent audience.

Gordon Getty certainly makes no concessions to a non-adult audience here. He sets the brief story almost in its entirety for chorus and orchestra, using his own adaptation of an 1888 translation of the Danish original by H B Paull. One wishes perhaps that Getty had made more extensive adaptations of this text, which brings out the sentimentality of the story with its over-frequent appeal to the adjective “little” – and even when this is absent, its implication by the use of its antithesis “large”. It is this aspect of Dickens, whose sentimental style can be equally cloying, that attracted the derision of Oscar Wilde; and perhaps it could have been toned down somewhat here. Nonetheless Getty’s setting is beautifully judged, highly melodic when required, and only occasionally betraying a sense of impatience in the speed with which some passages are treated. The diction of the German choir is generally very good, with only occasional lapses to show that English is not their native language, and they produce full and resonant tone throughout. The climactic passage describing the death of the girl, and the lyrical orchestral interlude that follows it, are really very moving indeed – as they should be.

The cover of this CD implies that this is the only work on the disc, but in fact we are also given three other works by Getty which feature the chorus. The programme opens with a setting of William Butler Yeats’s A prayer for my daughter, and again this is most effective. The poem was written at the height of the Irish struggle for independence, and the storm raging without which Yeats describes is at once literal and symbolic of the times. Getty conjures up quite a howling tempest at the opening, and although again there is some sense of haste in the setting of Yeats’s occasionally over-indulgent verse this is not altogether inappropriate to such lines as “dancing to a frenzied drum, out of the murderous innocence of the sea.” Again the choral diction is miraculously clear, although there are times when one clearly needs the assistance of the texts published in the booklet; these are supplied throughout, together with fairly brief notes by the composer on the music and its inspiration.

Poor Peter features texts by Getty himself, and although he is hardly an original writer – he cites the influence of Yeats’s Song of Wandering Aengus – they fulfil their purpose well. The first song is a sort of ‘spin-off’ from his opera on The Fall of the House of Usher, which I generally welcomed when it was staged in Cardiff last year, and the second contains a roistering dance for the chorus. Nikolai Schukoff displays almost heroic tone in his delivery, although here it is definitely clear that English is not his native language. In all three of these items the Munich Radio Orchestra are crisp and clean in their playing under the baton of Asher Frisch.

Ulf Schirmer takes over the baton for the last item on the disc, the cantata Joan and the Bells, which has featured on an earlier Pentatone release conducted by Alexander Vedernikov and coupled there rather oddly with the second suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. It obviously makes much more sense to release it in conjunction with other Getty choral works, as well as making for a more substantial duration; the earlier CD clocked in at 51 minutes. However I have to say that I find this the weakest of the pieces on this new disc. It is almost operatic in its treatment of the trial and execution of Joan of Arc, but the text by the composer is almost totally lacking in any sense of the transcendence of what is happening (if you happen to believe in God) or the horror of the burning (if you do not).

The particular weaknesses of the sometimes brutally bare word-setting are illustrated most vividly in the second section of the score (track 7) where Joan in isolation contemplates her visions of the saints and her earlier career. The saints are given very short shrift indeed; they have hardly delivered one of their admonitions before the music moves on to further narrative, and the description of Joan’s military campaigns is dispatched at top speed leading to her prayer for forgiveness. This could have been effective if the last section had risen to the occasion, but the tone of the delivery hardly varies and the final line simply comes to a halt without any form of orchestral peroration, shifting the scene with indecent haste to the square at Rouen.

Melody Moore does what she can with the material, but she sounds conscientious rather than inspired; Lester Lynch as Bishop Cauchon does what he can with passages of declamatory recitative which simply fail to illuminate the words. Here also there are some moments of imprecision in the performance – I noted one point when the players simply failed to conclude a chord together – and although the work has received many performances since its 1998 première I can’t help feeling that Getty has done so much better since. At least, I assume he has; the otherwise comprehensive notes are infuriatingly coy on exactly when most of these pieces were written, and the composer’s website is of no assistance either. Since however his online biography states that an earlier CD (see below) contained his “principal choral works up to that time”, I think we can assume that the other works here all postdate that; and The little match girl is described as “recently completed” in 2013.

Nevertheless this CD will well repay investigation for the other three works on the disc, and the presentation with full texts and notes, together with biographical details on the performers, is a model of its kind. I personally find the cover design quite hideous, but don’t let that put you off. Admirers of Getty’s music, of which there are many and among whom I am happy to be numbered, will want this disc; those who are discovering him for the first time should also be well satisfied. They should also investigate an earlier Pentatone CD of Getty’s choral music including Young America and the Victorian scenes which is a really marvellous listen (PTC 5186 040).
 
Paul Corfield Godfrey



 

 




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