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Will TODD (b. 1970)
Ode to a Nightingale (Choral Symphony No.4) [31:22]
James McCARTHY (b. 1979)
Codebreaker [52:12]
Julia Doyle (soprano: Codebreaker)
Hertfordshire Chorus
BBC Concert Orchestra/David Temple
rec. 2016, Watford Colosseum
Full texts provided
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD495 [31:22 + 52:12]

I suppose that when one reads a truly great poem after a long absence, one can be strongly moved by the half-remembered beauty of its phrases and the mastery of the poet. That is what happened to me when I read Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale for the first time in about three decades.

I read it before listening to this recording with the aim of assessing how the composer had responded to the stanzas and the overall structure of the poem, but I actually found myself more struck by his overall choice of orchestration. I am not familiar with Todd’s work, but the booklet lists several compositions and mentions that he has been influenced by jazz.

Well, jazz I did not hear but I certainly did hear a very considerable reliance on harp, piano as an orchestral instrument, tubular bells, tam-tam, cymbals (sometimes played with a cymbal-brush) and glockenspiel. Add strings to the mix and you have a luxurious sound indeed.

Now I love the sound of the tam-tam—just let me revel in the coda of Rachmaninov’s first symphony, and you will know what I mean. As this recording proceeded, however, I began to think that both the tam-tam and cymbals were being over-used. The latter appeared at many of the minor and major climaxes of the work, and I think were employed brushed, if not continuously, then certainly to influence much of the orchestral accompaniment of the choir.

Of course, this is a very personal opinion, but I did not feel that Todd’s orchestration was all that suitable to the Ode, which is, after all a rumination on the transience of life and death, wherein the poet imagines the nightingale as being immortal through its timeless song. In fact, had I not been able to hear some of the words, I would probably have thought the music to be some sort of “symphonic synthesis” of a film soundtrack.

Having said that, I enjoyed it enormously. I adore the sound of a superbly recorded orchestra and chorus performing modern yet melodic music, and we have that here, in spades!

The work opens with a strikingly luscious three-minute orchestral introduction, and the tendencies I refer to are demonstrated to the full. I should think most people would find it totally appropriate for an outsize fantasy film. In contrast, the beautiful opening stanza is begun by a very lightly accompanied female chorus, and on repetition of the text, is joined by the men. It is gorgeous, but we are only two minutes into it when the cymbals and tam-tam can be heard, albeit lightly.

During the lines of the second stanza, which begins “Oh for a draught of vintage”, Todd throws every resource of the late romantic orchestra into the mix: rippling harps, drums, tam-tam; and I lost count of the number of times the cymbals were employed either to cap a climax, or used just within the orchestra.

Will Todd has a strong melodic gift and is an accomplished orchestrator. It is easy to get carried away on the almost intoxicating wash of sound. The music seems to pulse and flow with the words, largely by his use of a rising and falling phrase, and only at the magically worded seventh stanza beginning “Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!” does the chorus sing with a minimal accompaniment for the full stanza. Here the music is pared down, becoming almost ghostly, less reliant on a recurring melodic fragment.

Having commented on the elaborate and fulsome orchestration that has gone before, I am now going to contradict myself by saying that I think that more could have been made of the orchestral accompaniment to the last lines of the seventh stanza:

“The same that oft-times hath
Charm'd magic casements, opening on the foam
Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.”
It is sung almost as a chant, spare of melody, the word “forlorn” repeated in a truly forlorn manner.

I think that I am rambling somewhat, but I have probably written enough to give the reader a good idea of what will be heard in this technically excellent recording. I repeat, I loved it and have already played it several times. I should think that the orchestra and chorus had a great time doing it, and very well they do it too, indeed, had I been in the audience during a performance, I would probably have applauded immoderately!

Now to the other work in this two-CD set, James McCarthy’s Codebreaker. Its length means that Signum have just missed being able to squeeze both works onto one disc. Consequently, two CDs are available for the price of one. Codebreaker is another modern work for chorus and orchestra, but this time with a soprano soloist as well, the really excellent, pure-toned Julia Doyle. The work relates the life and sad death of the brilliant mathematician and founder of Computer Science, Alan Turing, who died as a result of the societal and legal attitude to homosexuality in Britain in the immediate post-war era.

I will immediately say that it could hardly constitute a more different musical experience than that offered by Will Todd in his Ode to a Nightingale. It is completely tonal, but written in a very much less flamboyant orchestral fashion than Todd’s.

Maybe it is just me, but I am not a fan of the spoken word within a musical setting, and even though the orchestra is silent at this point, I do not warm to the inclusion of the Chamberlain speech in which the Prime Minister asserts Britain’s response to the invasion of Poland. In addition, it stands out rather jarringly by being the actual BBC recording. Yes, it contributes a little to the story, but in some manner disrupts it as well. It does not last long, just 45 seconds, so I will pass on to the music which is so splendidly recorded and performed on this Signum disc.

It opens with a percussion accompanied cry from the chorus “We shall be happy”, which is a phrase taken from a poem by Sara Teasdale, whose poems are used so effectively throughout the work. This poem recurs at the end, thus achieving a sort of circularity. It is followed by the chorus singing an excerpt from a postcard Turing sent, and I guess that it must be the first time a chorus has had to sing the word “hyperboloids” (Turing was a mathematician, remember). McCarthy can write a decent tune and we can begin to see it here, where the repetition of the words and the accompaniment hint at minimalism.

Next, we have Gordon Brown’s speech, in which he briefly describes Turing’s contribution to the war effort, his subsequent conviction, appalling sentence, and then, movingly, an apology. This works rather well in this setting, although the words are hardly poetic, except, perhaps the last couple of lines:

“I am very proud to say: we’re sorry.
You deserved so much better”.

The work continues with sung excerpts from poems by Wilfred Owen, Oscar Wilde, Edward Thomas, Robert Burns and Sara Teasdale. The first of these, from Owen’s Song of Songs, is set memorably by the composer and sung beautifully by the choir.

“Sing me at morn but only with your laugh;
Even as Spring that laugheth into leaf;
Even as love that laugheth after life.”

Turing’s mother, Sara, is also assigned words that are sung by the soprano, which add incidents from his life, filling in the biographical content. In one instance, she sings Turing’s own words on the death of a beloved friend, his first love:

“I must not let him down.
I shall miss his face so,
And the way he used to smile at me sideways”
The musical setting moved me to tears.

If I were to continue describing each section, an already long pair of reviews would be much too long, so I will just say that using words he has so perceptively chosen, and writing within the tonal idiom, the composer has flexed his melodic and rhythmic muscles to arresting and often moving effect. Quiet sections are often hypnotic and the climaxes are shattering. His orchestration is most appropriate and never moves into the realms of the filmic.

He is superbly served by all involved in making this recording. The booklet contains essays by both composers and full texts. I give a thorough recommendation to this issue.

Jim Westhead



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