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Jonathan DOVE (b.1959)
An Airmail Letter from Mozart for two, horns, string quartet and piano (1993) [15.03]
For an Unknown Soldier for tenor solo, SATB choir and children’s choirs (2014) [50:16]
Nicky Spence (tenor); Melvyn Tan (piano)
Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir, Oxford Bach Choir, a children’s choir
Members of the London Mozart Players/Nicholas Cleobury
rec. 12-13 September 2016, Blackheath Concert Hall, London

The first work, a happy little taster you might say, is An Airmail Letter from Mozart. This comprises a set of eight brief variations on a theme taken from Mozart’s Divertimento K287. It’s a simple tune, which offers opportunities of all sorts for variations. Dove, in his own language has a first variant and a later one in an irregular time signature mostly 7/8. This, in its ostinato patterning, evokes minimalist composers however Dove’s real ability, and the thing which has so attracted him to the public, is his ability to create warm-hearted melodies and harmonies. Variation IV which is the longest and, sensibly, separately tracked, is such a treat and is given to a wondrous solo horn. The final track is taken over by the short-winded variations V, VI, VII and VIII meaning that the music always has direction and a constant stream of interesting ideas. The conceit being that if Mozart could live now and travel around the world this is this is the kind of music he might write for his wife Constanze. A great start to the disc.

The main focus is on the large-scale For an Unknown Soldier scored for S.A.T.B, tenor solo, and children’s choirs. There is also a ‘band’ of two oboes, bassoons, horns, one trumpet, timpani and other percussion. These are used effectively and colourfully. The texts are fascinatingly chosen. Although Wilfred Owen is represented other poets will be little known and four are by women whose sympathies and observations are often the most telling. Especially moving was Mary Collins’ ‘Women at Munition Making’: “But now their hands, their fingers/are coarsened in munitions factories” – an aspect of war we can too easily forget.

Stylistically the work is eclectic. The orchestral writing stands apart in quality. The imaginative lines for the solo tenor are telling. Sadly, when it comes to the writing for the children, Dove becomes somewhat ‘tongue-tied’. Their melodies, although sometimes striking are also restricted in range and emotional power. Most memorable is “Who’s for the trench –Are you my laddie? (a poem by Jessie Pope). Dove cleverly intermixes this, sung by the children, with Charles Sorley's ‘All the Hills and Vales Along”. This is given to the chorus and, later, to the tenor solo; Sorley was a victim of the fighting in 1915. In the next section the children are given the original ‘British Grenadiers’ melody, which seems to me as if the composer didn’t quite trust his abilities and decided not to write something new. In any case this section stands curiously apart and does not quite chime with the preceding section.

Although this is an anthology cantata and lacks the genius of a Britten type addition to the repertoire it does have several very effective and moving moments. None more so than in section five ‘Before Action’ in which the men and the tenor solo sing a poem by William Hodgson who died on the first day of the Somme. This contains two famous lines “Say goodbye to all that “ and ‘Help me to die Lord’. Dove interleaves this with a setting for the women’s voices of ‘To you in France’ by Helen Dircks. Lamenting her lover she exclaims, “I want to tell you of the perfect scent of the roses”. Dove finds a simple but memorably long-limbed Pucciniesque melody, which lingers long in the mind.

I wouldn’t like to admit to finding anything amiss with the performance; quite the reverse. Nicholas Cleobury obtains the best results and with clear diction all-round one scarcely needs the booklet’s clearly set-out texts. I should point out though that the text tracking is incorrectly numbered in the booklet. Nicky Spence is particularly well focused and expressive and the Oxford Chorus perfectly drilled and nicely balanced with a lovely tone quality.

The notes have been written by the composer without fuss and allowing the listener space to consider his achievement. The recording however seems rather shallow and lacking in depth.

This is often an emotional work, tapping into such a profound issue at this time of painful remembrance. The composer has been utterly honest in its composition but it’s a flawed work and one which has ultimately disappointed me. Dove might decide to revise the over-use of unison writing or perhaps he could challenge the younger voices even further to make it more of a homogeneous composition. Somehow it doesn’t quite feel a complete experience.

All that said, I don’t want to put anyone off sampling it on CD or indeed attempting it with his or her own choral societies. Only through more and varied performances can its true value ultimately be gauged.

Gary Higginson

Previous review: John Quinn



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