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Bushes and Briars: Folk Songs for Choirs Books 1 and 2
St. Charles Singers/Jeffrey Hunt
rec. 7-10 June 2015, St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Wheaton, Illinois
MSR CLASSICS MS1606 [69.55]

I am of the generation that worries that young people do not now sing or know the old English Folk songs; the songs that circulated in school singing lessons when I was young. Many of these were collected in the early decades of the twentieth century by Vaughan Williams, Cecil Sharp and Gustav Holst. These, although once lost for several generations, have been a part of our heritage and should be in our basic DNA. Therefore it's good to know that a new collection for mixed voices in two volumes edited by John Rutter and published by the OUP has recently appeared and also that twenty-five British and American folk songs and arrangements have been recorded here.

The St. Charles Singers is based in the Chicago area and although they are new to me, the booklet proclaims that they are “internationally recognised”. They commission new works and were founded by Jeffrey Hunt as long ago as 1984. Their singing is marked by passion and commitment and their thirty-five singers are listed here. The sound is fresh and full of the ‘right sort’ of character for this repertoire.

A collection edited by John Rutter will clearly include several of his own arrangements. This may well irritate some listeners who feel –‘Ruttered-out’ especially at Christmas. Sadly it's true that many expert arrangers of folk-music especially those of the mid-century are omitted. However it's good to have some by John Byrt, Edward Bairstow and the late David Willcocks.

We are offered a great collection of all the classic folk-songs. The arrangements vary from the quite challenging like Afton Water arranged by Willcocks and also Byrt’s Strawberry Fair to the more straightforward such as RVW’s famously beautiful The Turtle Dove and Ca’ the Yowes the one track which perhaps I liked best. All are, of course a cappella and tuning is fundamental. This is harder to achieve when the arranger moves regularly between keys which is vital if the arrangement is not to be too colourless. The St. Charles Singers cannot be faulted technically and their dynamic shading is mostly well judged and appropriate. It’s also good that tempi and moods are well contrasted from track to track.

The solo work is generally pleasing. In Grainger’s wonderful setting of Brigg Fair Steve Williamson has an ideal tone quality but for my taste, snatches breaths too often breaking up the phrases. In addition the close miking of the solo seems to have led to a distortion of the forte choral sound. This happens again in many other places for example in Holst’s rollicking setting of Swansea Town.

The CD notes are very helpful. Each piece is given a few lines of description on the tune and/or on the composer and there are interspersed photographs. All texts are clearly given. It’s just a pity that the arranger’s names are not given on the first page, but that’s a small point.

This CD must have been good fun to record and is rare if not unique. Anyone interested in British song, and, true there are also some fine American folk-songs like the fun-loving Sourwood Mountain (in which the choir, not surprisingly, are probably at their best) will find this disc of interest as indeed will most choral conductors.

Gary Higginson

Track listing

1. O Waly, Waly arr. John RUTTER (b.1945) [2.22]
2. Early One Morning arr. David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015) [1.45]
3. She’s Like the Swallow arr. Edward CHAPMAN (1902-1981) [2.36]
4. Among the leaves so green-o arr. John BYRT (b.1939) [2.25]
5. Bushes and Briars arr. David JAMES (b.1935) [2.31]
6. Bobby Shaftoe arr. WILLCOCKS [1.36]
7. Dashing away with the smoothing iron arr. RUTTER [2.42]
8. Greensleeves arr. Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) [3.09]
9. Londonderry Air arr. Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961) [2.44]
10. My Sweetheart’s Like Venus arr. Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) [1.47]
11. Black Sheep arr. Alan LOMAX (1915-2002) [1.36]
12. Sourwood Mountain arr. RUTTER [1.53]
13. Afton Water arr. WILLCOCKS [3.36]
14. I Love my love arr HOLST [4.20]
15. Brigg Fair arr. GRAINGER [2.44]
16. Strawberry Fair arr. Donald JAMES (1931-2005) [3.38]
17. Faithful Johnny arr. John BYRT [2.31]
18. The Three Ravens arr. CHAPMAN [4.30]
19. The Keel Row arr. BYRT [1.57]
20. Ca’ the Yowes arr. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS [4.23]
21. The Oak and the Ash arr. Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946) [2.39]
22. The Sailor and Young Nancy arr. E.J. MOERAN (1894-1950) [3.06]
23. Swansea Town arr. HOLST [2.55]
24. The Turtle Dove arr. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS [2.37]
25. Yarmouth Fair WARLOCK (1896-1930) [2.14]



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