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Silence & Music Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
The Blue Bird (1910) [3:53] Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
There is sweet music (1907) [4:42] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Silence and music (1953) [5:18] Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
The Summer is Coming (1965) [7:34] Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Brigg Fair (1906/1911) [2:59] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Bushes and Briars (1908) [2:10]
The winter is gone (1912) [1:41]
The Turtle Dove (1924) [2:58] Sir James MACMILLAN (b. 1959)
The Gallant Weaver (1995) [6:11] Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
Who killed Cock Robin? (1995) [8:15] Percy GRAINGER
The Three Ravens (1902/1949) [4:30] Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
The Evening Primrose (1950) [3:11] Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
All the flowers of Spring (1923) [6:25] Sir Edward ELGAR
Owls (An Epitaph) (1907) [3:38] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Rest (1902) [4:15]
Robert Murray (tenor)
Neal Davies (baritone)
Tim Roberts (harmonium)
Gabrieli Consort/Paul McCreesh
rec. 2016, Charterhouse School Chapel, Surrey
Texts included SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD490 [67:42]
Paul McCreesh here ventures into the English part song repertoire – somewhat unexpected territory for him – and he does so in a most interesting way. True, some of the “usual suspects” for such a programme are present – Stanford’s Blue Bird hovers benignly over VW’s Bushes and Briars and There is sweet music to be heard in the vicinity of Brigg Fair. However, dig a little deeper and you’ll find a most invigorating enquiry into the question of Who killed Cock Robin? while Elgar’s spooky Owls roost not far from Grainger’s equally individual Three Ravens. This is a programme in which the familiar sit cheek by jowl with less well-known part songs. Moreover, in terms of subject matter the natural world is very much to the fore but the selected songs often use the natural world as a metaphor for aspects of the human condition.
The singing is consistently excellent throughout the programme. The Blue Bird is one of the most exquisite choral pieces I know and here it receives an exquisite performance. Indeed, I can’t recall hearing a better one since the recording made by The Cambridge Singers and John Rutter (Collegium CSCD 505). Stanford’s music requires formidable control if it’s to be sung as well as this; McCreesh and his singers display formidable control but also convey the poetry in the music.
Vaughan Williams dedicated Silence and music ‘to the memory of Charles Villiers Stanford and his Blue Bird’. Here, as in the Stanford, the singing of the Gabrieli Consort’s sopranos is wonderful, the great purity of their tone ravishing the ear. In this composition VW sets a poem by his wife, Ursula. Both words and music seem to me to depict a landscape that a bit more wintry than the one glimpsed in Stanford’s music – and in Mary Coleridge’s words. Silence and music is a searching part song and it’s expertly performed. In fact, VW is generously represented in this programme. Bushes and Briars and The winter is gone are sung by tenors and basses. The full choir is heard in The Turtle Dove along with guest soloist Neal Davies. He’s excellent and the performance conveys the heart-stopping melancholy of the traditional tune and of VW’s highly sympathetic arrangement.
The other guest soloist – like Davies, luxury casting – is Robert Murray who’s heard in Brigg Fair. Unsurprisingly, he sings very well. However, I couldn’t escape a nagging feeling that his delivery is very much that of ‘A Soloist’; his delivery is just a shade over-inflected, it seems to me.
As I indicated, Paul McCreesh has ventured off the beaten track in some of his selections. There are two items by contemporary composers. The Gallant Weaver is an example of James MacMillan at his most approachable. It’s a haunting Celtic setting. Here the Gabrieli sopranos do another fabulous job. Jonathan Dove’s Who killed Cock Robin? is highly imaginative, not least in the very opening where Dove suggests in his writing a babble of people, all wanting answers to the pressing question. It was shrewd to follow the MacMillan with Dove’s piece because it offers a high degree of contrast, not least a contrast of pacing, the MacMillan slow and atmospheric, the Dove much more urgent.
From an earlier age, though no less challenging as a setting, comes Peter Warlock’s All the flowers of Spring. This is a rarely-heard piece – I’m struggling to recall hearing it before – and, frankly, I’m not surprised. The writing is highly chromatic and so the music must be very demanding to sing; it’s also demanding to hear. The two pieces by Elgar also stretch the boundaries in their own way. There is sweet music is very beautiful but it’s also something of a technical tour de force with the sopranos and altos singing in one key and the tenors and basses in another. Elgar’s genius lies in the fact that one is aware of the tension that this causes yet the device does not ostentatiously draw attention to itself. Owls (An Epitaph) is possibly the strangest piece in the composer’s entire output. He wrote not only the music but also the words himself and, moreover, he composed both words and music in a single day: New Year’s Eve, 1907. The result is a song that seems to play with and in shadows. It’s an eerie piece, pregnant with atmosphere. The Gabrieli’s performance is as searching as it is expert.
The programme opened with an exquisite piece, exquisitely performed and it concludes in like manner. VW’s Rest, a setting of lines by Christina Rossetti, is simply gorgeous and this present performance manages simultaneously to leave the listener wanting more yet also feeling an entirely satisfactory completion has been achieved.
This is a perceptively assembled programme of marvellous English part songs. The music is nicely varied and every piece is highly rewarding. Without exception the performances are superb. The sound quality achieved by engineer Neil Hutchinson, working with producer Adrian Peacock, presents the performances in the best possible light. The notes take the form of a most interesting conversation between Paul McCreesh and Jeremy Summerly.
Shortly after these recording sessions Paul McCreesh went on a walking expedition in the north of England, following the ‘Coast to Coast’ route from St. Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast. He took a number of photographs while he was on that expedition and some of these have been used in the booklet. The pictures are in black-and-white which, to my mind, enhances the rugged beauty of the scenery that McCreesh has captured with his lens. These pictures put the seal on a release that is outstandingly presented in every respect.