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Music of the Spheres: Part-Songs of the British Isles
Herbert MURRILL (1909-1952)
Two Songs from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night [4:54]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Autumn, H.24 [3:46]
Music When Soft Voices Die, H.31 [2:53]
The Bee, H.110 [1:13]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Three Shakespeare Songs [6:42]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Four Part-Songs, Op. 54 [16:03]
Ernest WALKER (1870-1949)
Soft Music, Op. 48 [2:04]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
The Drowned Lovers [5:43]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Blue Bird, Op.119: No. 3 [4:09]
On Time, Op. 142 [5:15]
Jonathan HARVEY (1939-2012)
Song of June [4:36]
Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955)
The Modern Man I Sing [7:37]
Tenebrae/Nigel Short
rec. All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, 2010/2015
Texts included
BENE ARTE SIGCD904 [65:04]

I was somewhat relieved to read in the booklet that the two part-songs by Herbert Murrill were new to Nigel Short. Like several other items on this programme the Murrill pieces were previously unknown to me so it's reassuring to find that so experienced a singer and choral conductor was previously unaware of them.

Both of the Murrill songs take for their texts lines from Twelfth Night and as we reach the end of the 'Shakespeare 400' year I'm glad to have encountered them. They're exquisite songs, expertly laid out for the choir, and they constitute excellent responses to The Bard's words. The second of them, Come away, Death has some especially affecting harmonies.

Nowadays, thanks especially, to the late Richard Hickox as well as other conductors we have the opportunity to hear the orchestral music of Frank Bridge, particularly on CD. His solo songs have also been quite well served on disc but his part-songs are less easy to encounter and the three selected by Nigel Short were, like the Murrill pieces, songs which I believe I've not heard previously. All three are well worth getting to know. Music When Soft Voices Die is gorgeous and tender while The Bee is a pell-mell scherzo, full of vitality.

We come onto much more familiar territory with VW's masterly Three Shakespeare Songs. Nigel Short and his singers are wonderfully responsive to the mysteriousness of Full Fathom Five. The incomparable, gravely beautiful chord sequences in The Cloud-Capp'd Towers are perfectly weighted and blended. These are superb songs and here they're marvellously done.

It's good to hear all four of Elgar's Op. 53 part-songs because not all of them are as familiar as There is Sweet Music. Even in a small scale piece such as this Elgar's use of two keys - one for the ladies' voices, one for the gentlemen - shows his ambition and restless curiosity. There's harmonic adventure too in Deep in My Soul. I infer from the notes that O Wild. West Wind was a test piece for the 1909 Morecambe Festival. If that's so then the competing choirs must have been very accomplished for it's a complex offering. Here it receives the necessary virtuoso performance. Ambitious though the other three Op. 53 songs are, the palm has to go to Owls. The words are by Elgar himself and both the text and the music are strange and unsettling. I know of nothing like this piece in all Elgar.

I am delighted that Stanford's peerless The Blue Bird finds its place in this company for it is one of my very favourite English part-songs. It's prefaced by Judith Bingham's The Drowned Lovers. The piece is designed to complement the Stanford and does so excellently. There are thematic allusions to The Blue Bird and, just as importantly, the ambience of Stanford's miniature masterpiece is evoked. The Blue Bird is given a magical, poised performance, one of the best I can recall hearing. On Time is a more robust example of Stanford's choral writing but it's no less finely wrought.

Bob Chilcott's three-movement The Modern Man I Sing closes the programme in fine style. These are the only pieces in the programme that don't set British texts - Chilcott turned to Walt Whitman. In The Runner he makes excellent use of rhythm and of choral devices to illustrate the athlete in action. The Last Invocation is a gentle and very beautiful central panel and the triptych closes with One's-Self I Sing which overflows with rhythmic energy.

This is a discerning and enterprisingly chosen programme. It's superbly delivered by Tenebrae whose singing is never less than immaculate. Their performances are spirited too; there's complete engagement with the music. The recordings were made at the same location but over four separate sets of sessions and with a number of engineers and producers involved but the sonic results are very consistent - and very good. Greg Murray's notes are succinct and perceptive.

John Quinn

Previous review: Simon Thompson (Recording of the Month)

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