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Cantatas for Soprano

 


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David BEDNALL (b. 1979)
Sudden Light

Lux orta est iusto [7:41]
Rise up, my love [7:37]
Te lucis ante terminum [2:50]
Three Songs of Love [11:06]
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? [4:59]
Welcome All Wonders XI. Tribus miraculis ornatum [3:32]
Welcome All Wonders XIII. But peaceful was the night [4:49]
Tota pulchra es [4:13]
Everyone Sang [5:17]
Sonnet 98 [4:48]
A Wedding Prayer [3:20]
Sudden Light [2:27]
The Argument of His Book [3:41]
Welcome All Wonders II. Alleluia [4:24]
The Epiphoni Consort/Tim Reader
Stephen Farr (organ)
rec. 2016, Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London. DDD
Texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34189 [70:54]

The Epiphoni Consort is a 32-strong SATB choir (9/9/6/8). The choir was founded in 2014 and this is their debut recording. The singers have all received advanced vocal and choral training but have not chosen to pursue professional careers. Let it be said loud and clear that on the evidence of this disc the Consort is a most accomplished ensemble. The sound they make is first-rate: the tone is fresh and firm; there’s excellent internal balance; and the diction is crystal clear. I really enjoyed listening to their performances.

Many choirs faced with making their debut disc would have chosen a mixed recital programme. Hats off, then, to Tim Reader for his enterprise in choosing a single-composer programme of pieces by one of the brightest talents in British choral music. The enterprise is enhanced because with the exception of Everyone Sang and the three excerpts from the Christmas cantata, Welcome All Wonders the programme otherwise consists of first recordings.

I’ve heard several discs of music by David Bednall in recent years and, in addition, individual pieces of his have cropped up in a number of mixed recital recordings. I’ve greatly admired what I’ve heard so I’m delighted to expand my knowledge of his output through these recorded premieres. Furthermore, to the best of my recollection, most if not all of his music that I’ve heard to date has been sacred in nature. Here The Epiphoni Consort include several examples of Bednall’s secular pieces.

Let’s start with those. Three Songs of Love actually sets four poems; two poems by W B Yeats constitute the middle song. The other poets set are John Clare and the Canadian, John McCrae (1872-1918). In his excellent notes on the music Andrew Stewart suggests that these settings “deserve to be measured against the finest partsongs of Holst, Parry, Pearsall and Vaughan Williams.” I completely agree, though I’d add one important name to that list: Gerald Finzi. Indeed, the opening phrase of the John Clare setting, First Love, calls to mind the opening of Finzi’s My spirit sang all day. This set of songs is very fine indeed. The harmonic writing is rich and warm and Bednall’s music seems to me to be an excellent response to each of the poems he has selected. I also admire the Shakespeare setting Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? while Sudden Light, a setting of lines by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is another example of rich harmonisation; it’s a beautiful part song.

I’d normally classify Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Everyone Sang as a secular text but here it straddles the secular and sacred repertoires because Bednall set it as a wedding blessing. I’ve heard this piece before and I think it’s excellent. It begins confidently and joyfully but then, as the poem unfolds, Bednall matches Sassoon’s sentiments and the piece winds down to a pensive conclusion as the choir quietly repeats several times the line “The singing will never be done.” A Wedding Prayer is a very different nuptial piece. I infer from the notes that it is designed for a solo soprano with organ accompaniment but here unison sopranos sing it. The melody, discreetly accompanied, is simple and direct, touching the heart gently. It was a wedding gift to the composer’s sister and her husband: what a lovely present!

Tim Reader and his choir include three movements from David Bednall’s substantial Christmas cantata, Welcome All Wonders. This was written for Bednall’s alma mater, Queen’s College, Oxford and that college’s choir has recorded the complete work (review). If you don’t know the cantata then I hope these three excellently sung extracts will whet your appetite to seek it out. Tribus miraculis ornatum has dancing, jubilant music at the beginning and end encasing a warm contemplative central episode. But peaceful was the night is a lovely Milton setting, simple and expressive. Alleluia is actually the second movement (and the first vocal movement) in the cantata but here it forms a suitably joyous end to the programme. Like Randall Thompson before him, Bednall here proves that you can do an awful lot with a setting of just one word.

The opening piece in the programme is spectacular. Lux orta est iusto was composed in 2015 specifically to be performed alongside Tallis’s Spem in alium. Bednall’s piece is also in forty parts – he uses eight SATBarB choirs – and for this 15 extra singers have been drafted in. It’s a virtuoso a cappella composition which shows to the full David Bednall’s imaginative ear for choral textures. There’s a great deal of contrast too; sometimes we hear the full forces while at other times just one or two of the choirs are involved. The piece is something of a compositional tour de force and I should imagine it’s very challenging to coordinate. The present performance is marvellous and the recording brings out the spatial effects in the score most successfully.

Rise up, my love is also spectacular, not least on account of its organ part. There’s a short but hugely imposing organ introduction which sounds very French and much of the choral writing achieves a note of ecstasy that sounds like Howells on steroids. There’s a quiet, unaccompanied passage in the middle (‘Set me as a seal upon thine heart’) before the opening material is revisited even more splendidly. This is thrilling but the piece achieves a rapt, gentle close.

All the music on this disc is very fine and full of interest. David Bednall is a highly accomplished and eloquent choral composer and there are many choice examples of his art here. He’s exceptionally well served by The Epiphoni Consort who give assured and expert performances, their singing full of conviction. Clearly, Tim Reader has prepared them very thoroughly for this assignment.

The recorded sound is fully up to Paul Baxter’s usual very high standards; the choir is heard clearly and in a pleasing acoustic ambience while the organ is superbly reported. Delphian invariably accompany their discs with excellent documentation and that’s the case here.

This is a most auspicious recording debut for The Epiphoni Consort; I look forward to hearing them again.

John Quinn

 

 




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