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Cantatas for Soprano

 


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Adam POUNDS (b. 1954)
Festival Overture (1987) [5:08]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Funeral Sentences: Man that is born of a woman; In the midst of life; Thou Knowest Lord (1694) [9:03]
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)
‘And the glory of the Lord’ from Messiah (1741) [3:04]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
My Soul, there is a country (1916-18) [2:57]
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Beati quorum via (pub. 1905) [3:08]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Ave Verum (1887) [2:18]
Adam POUNDS
If ye love me (?) [2:39]
London Cantata (premiere live recording) (2016-17) [26:55]
Stapleford Choral Society
The Academy of Great St Mary’s/Adam Pounds
rec. 2017, Great St Mary’s, Cambridge (cantata); St Andrew’s Church, Stapleford and Sts Peter and Paul, Chingford (others)
Private release [53:53]

Despite this music being performed by a Cambridgeshire-based choir and orchestra, all these pieces have London as their focal point, although occasionally this is a little tenuous as will be seen. The programme is an interesting balance of old favourites and modern works which explore several genres: an orchestral overture, accompanied and unaccompanied choral anthems and motets and the premiere recording of a large-scale cantata.

The opening track delivers Adam Pounds’ Festival Overture, which was commissioned in 1987 by the London Borough of Waltham Forest with funding from Greater London Arts to celebrate the Waltham Forest Arts Festival. Details of Pounds can be found on his excellent webpage. Adam Pounds told me that he wanted to write a work that would echo the “urban environment and that would fuse several styles together”’ This is reflected in the use of West Indian idioms such as the roto-toms, which have been used to great effect in the past by groups as diverse as Pink Floyd and Van Halen. It is hard to typify a style to this eclectic music, save to suggest that the listener may think: ‘Malcolm Arnold!’. There is also a touch of ‘Cheltenham’ about this work, which, in my opinion is a good thing. It is a vibrant, happy overture that is effective on a first hearing, but grows in stature the more often it is heard.

A succession of choral works follows: including Henry Purcell’s Funeral Sentences: ‘Man that is born of women’, ‘In the midst of life’ and ‘Thou Knowest Lord, the secrets of our hearts’. The texts are taken from the Book of Common Prayer. Purcell wrote this music for the funeral of Queen Mary which took place in Westminster Abbey on 5 March 1694. Interestingly, ‘Thou Knowest Lord’ was later performed at Purcell’s own funeral in the same year. These Sentences are hauntingly beautiful and, whatever the listener’s personal beliefs (or none) provide considerable food for thought.

Little need be said about Handel’s ‘And the glory of the Lord’, extracted from Messiah. This oratorio was composed in 1741 at the composer’s Brook Street address in London. I wonder what GFH would have made of the wonderful music written and played by his next-door neighbour in time, the great Jimi Hendrix (1942-70)?

Charles Hubert Hastings Parry’s ‘My Soul, there is a country’, is a setting of an optimistic text by Welsh poet Henry Vaughan. It is selected from Parry’s late Songs of Farewell: it is one of a relatively few ‘perfect’ pieces of choral music. Charles Villiers Stanford’s ‘Beati quorum via (Blessed are those that are undefiled) is equally beautiful. It is the third of his Three Motets, op.38 dating from 1905, although they were written earlier. Like many of Stanford’s anthems and part-songs, these motets are perfectly fashioned. ‘Beati quorum via’ is thoughtful and meditative in its mood. I understand that the London connection with Parry n’ Stanford is quite simply that they lived and worked in the Capital for several years, at the Royal College of Music. Remember that Parry was a Bournemouth/Gloucestershire man and Stanford was born in Dublin. Elgar’s ‘Ave Verum Corpus’ is always welcome in any choral recital. It was composed in 1886 and revised several years later. A ‘new’ anthem, ‘If ye love me’ by Adam Pounds concludes the anthems and motets section of this CD. I am not sure when it was composed, but it is based on a text from St John’s Gospel (John 14:15–17). It is probably best known in a setting by Thomas Tallis. Pounds’ version has the depth of Tallis coupled to a more piquant harmonic vocabulary. It is a timeless piece.

I rely on the composer’s programme notes for details of the expansive London Cantata. The work was specifically composed for the ‘combined forces of the Academy of Great St. Mary’s and the Stapleford Choral Society. It is scored for a normal sized orchestra, baritone solo and standard four-part chorus and was composed during 2016-2017. It received its premiere at Great St. Mary’s Church, Cambridge on 23 September 2017. Other works performed at this concert included Beethoven’s Symphony No.7, Pounds’ Festival Overture and a double horn concerto by Antonio Rosetti.

The uplifting opening section of the London Cantata has overtones of William Walton and George Dyson. Both these composers set the Scottish poet William Dunbar’s most enduring poem, ‘To the City of London’. This is a powerful and dynamic paean. After the celebratory Dunbar setting, Pounds changes the mood of the work. He writes: “George Eliot’s ‘In a London Drawing Room’…really explains the idea behind the work in that we scratch the polished veneer of the great city and we find a vast array of lifestyle, history, opulence and poverty”. There follows a restrained setting of William Wordsworth’s famous poem ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge.’ This is performed by the baritone soloist and chorus.

In the middle of the Cantata, Pounds has provided an orchestral interlude. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the main theme is based on the world-famous Westminster Chimes (now (2018) temporarily silenced during ongoing structural repairs to the Elizabeth Tower). Yet there is a strong Cambridge connection: the chimes that we (and Vierne, Coates et al) know and love were composed in 1793 for Great St Mary’s Church. It is a small world. This is a lovely little interlude that could easily gain traction as a miniature in its own right. The orchestration is charming.

Anyone who has explored London Docklands will have been struck by the atmosphere of Shadwell. Despite three decades of gentrification along the Thames, there is still a feeling of ‘slippery’ time. There has been considerable debate about the background and inspiration of Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Shadwell Stair’. This is not the forum to discuss this, however, Pounds’ music expresses the ghostliness of Owen as he explores this part of London whether alive of dead. The poem is well sung by the baritone soloist. Then a vibrant setting of Amy Levy’s poem ‘A March Day in London’ follows. Initially reflecting a “mad march day” there are some quieter moments when the choir reflects on “the gas-lamps’ gleam” and “the ruby lights of the hansoms flicker” The London Cantata concludes with a reprise of the ‘William Dunbar’ music, bringing the entire works to a satisfying and impressive conclusion.

It is no criticism of the present performers to suggest that both of Adam Pounds’ major works require a full professional studio recording. The London Cantata is a remarkable piece that seems eternal in its aesthetic style. Pounds has not been afraid to utilise Walton/Dyson-esque choral idioms matched to something a little more modernist in scope.

John France




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