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Silence & Music
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]
The glory of The blue bird is how Stanford conveys in sound the consciousness of its brief flashing, in a radiant, gliding melisma climaxing at top A flat, across the sight line, in sopranos set apart from contraltos, tenors and basses who depict the stillness of lake and sky. In McCreesh’s account this melisma luxuriates and blossoms, giving the bird a stunning presence while his similar generosity with the pause on the sopranos’ closing note, sustained after the other parts finish, brings a sense of the bird as a continuing entity when the lake is left and forgotten. This strong feel of presence and harmonic detail gives McCreesh’s performance the edge over that recorded in 1986 by The Cambridge Singers conducted by John Rutter (Collegium CSCD 505), albeit Rutter’s climax has splendour and his dynamic contrasts are effective.
This CD’s title piece, Silence and music was dedicated by Vaughan Williams to the memory of Stanford and his blue bird. It also has a leading soprano line with the lower parts providing misty echoing support, but is more a sensitive setting of Ursula Vaughan Williams’s thoughts than an evocation of atmosphere. I compared the 2008 recording by Laudibus/Mike Brewer (Delphian DCD 34074), which uses a soloist for the soprano line at the beginning and close. This is not marked in the score, but does make for great clarity in the delivery of the text and realization of its individuality, as for example a solitary sleeping swan is depicted drifting on the water. McCreesh’s body of sopranos are smoother and graphic enough, but less mysterious. Come the full ensemble ululation of winds, McCreesh’s dynamics are more vividly active and his climactic tuttis, the birds rejoicing and power of fully flourishing music are of imposing substance, albeit with a formality that misses Brewer’s ecstasy. McCreesh’s close, however, is more effective, a homage to the beauty of silence which is actually of tranquil after clamorous music.
In Elgar’s There is sweet music Rutter takes a more expansive view of its Andante marking, timing at 5:34 to McCreesh’s 4:42, arguably closer to Adagietto. McCreesh conveys an urgency in telling the poem’s tale, a warmer and more immediate savouring of its landscape, where Rutter is more reflective and cultivated. The work is daring for its time in being laid out for an upper choir of 2 soprano and 2 contralto parts singing in A flat major and a lower choir of 2 tenor and 2 bass parts singing in G major. This brings with McCreesh a bracing freshness to the upper choir’s entry after the lower choir opening. Rutter emphasises more that this entry is softer, to unearthly effect. Elgar uses single voices from the lower choir to revisit elements of the upper choir’s text, such as ‘Than tir’d eyelids’ (tr. 2, 1:31). These are vividly projected by McCreesh as is the harmonic tweak in the upper parts as ‘the poppy hangs in sleep’, where Rutter rather evokes a romantic, poetic image. The close, in which the two choirs alternate chords on ‘sleep’, ever softening, is similarly cooler, more modern in McCreesh’s hands, the final one deep in the lower voices, like a soft snore.
McCreesh also gives us Elgar’s Owls (tr. 14), an even more extraordinary piece, in which the answer to every question is ‘Nothing’, a creepy semitone descent from the upper voices which Elgar termed ‘an owlish sound’. The piece combines matter-of-fact reportage in phrases, which are extended sequences of semitones, such as ‘Dead at the foot of the tree’ (0:30) and a melodically spare but eloquently solemn refrain, ‘All that can be is said’ (e.g. 0:40). But beyond that there’s an angst in the statements and questioning, which adumbrates all the sorrows of existence. I compared the 2015 recording by Tenebrae/Nigel Short (Signum Classics SIGCD 904). Elgar’s marking is Moderato. Taking 2:53, Short’s account is more sombre and dramatic, the reportage more stealthy, gloomy, nightmarish. But I prefer McCreesh, taking 3:38, because his slightly more spacious approach makes you ponder more, with a normality about the reportage that distresses but also a caring warmth in the sorrowful refrain.
The spectre of nihilism is also found in Warlock’s setting of Webster’s dirge, All the Flowers of the Spring. McCreesh begins this almost serenely, but at the end of its opening section comes a grave shadow in the sopranos’ A flat on ‘time’, hinting at a time for closure and introducing a meditation on the span of life, in chromatic descents, then saying farewell to its delights, alluded to with a delicate precision. McCreesh makes this all strangely beautiful, while the basses maintain a constant low G as a death knell. You are wrenched out of this dreamy state by the fortissimo shriek of condemnation, ‘Vain the ambition of kings’, but this is no more than the preface to a close in which all that endures is the long, dying moan of the wind, Warlock’s version of Elgar’s ‘Nothing’, but in this case finally relieved by a soprano solo’s descending ‘Ah’ as human empathy. I compared the 2013 recording by The Carice Singers/George Parris (Naxos 8.573227). Timing at 5:32 to McCreesh’s 6:33, Parris takes a less expansive view of Warlock’s marking ‘Very slowly’. This makes the narrative a truly gaunt parade. ‘Vain the ambition’ is less of a statement while the close is more desolate. McCreesh’s dynamic contrasts are less stark than Parris’s, but I like his greater contrasts of mood. McCreesh finds more weariness surveying the span of life, with the sense of an inevitably sustained tragedy, yet also brings more contrast in the joy of birth, vigour of growth and natural grace of death. His fading of delight is like a waltz gradually stiffening and I prefer the greater clarity of his windswept close and emotive human counterbalance.
Britten’s The evening primrose (tr. 12) is structurally similar to Elgar: here 4-part homophony with harmonic tweaks at key moments, such as the distinctive identification of the primrose (0:45), contrasted with passages for individual parts in imitation, a particularly deft one being that between sopranos and contraltos, illustrating the gawkiness of the unappreciative ‘blindfold’ night (1:30). The climax of daybreak is here a steely, destructive glare. The marking is Andante tranquillo. McCreesh, timing in at 3:11, emphasises the latter aspect while Rutter, at 2:15, favours the former. The outcome for McCreesh is an emotive sense of appreciative observation, whereas with the more objective Rutter you admire the clarity of Britten’s rhythms and counterpoint.
Howells’s The summer is coming is dedicated to the memory of Bax and has his exuberant celebration but also is folk-like with its soprano semi-chorus opening and close. Howells’s melismata are elaborately crafted, his full chorus luxuriant in texture and activity and his soprano top As, of which there are six plus one top A sharp, for me evoke more his more accustomed cathedral setting. The piece needs, and gets, a virtuoso performance from McCreesh and does give a vivid impression of a cuckoo actively in flight, a more visceral sensation than that provided by Stanford, or indeed the more delicate, gossamer quality, especially in the closing semi-chorus, of the 1991 recording by the Finzi Singers/Paul Spicer (Chandos CHAN 9139). Spicer brings stronger dynamic contrast to the semi-choruses, so at the opening Summer is clearly coming from a distance, but McCreesh’s account has more immediacy and edge. His climax on sadness for the wild geese gone is more dramatic and their departure more savoured as an aftertaste. The boats tilt more alarmingly and the heifers take on a funereal cast as they stand over the ancient graves.
Jonathan Dove’s Who killed Cock Robin? has an introductory section, in which the birds and other creatures are searching for Cock Robin. McCreesh brings to this the excitement of a chase, where the 2011 recording I compared by the Convivium Singers/Neil Ferris (Naxos 8.572733) changes in mood from irritation to alarm, until the introduction ends in a sudden gasp as the body is found. McCreesh’s end sounds to me more like a snort. The killer quickly owns up: a sparrow, McCreesh’s being especially playful. Most of the piece is then drawing up a roster of functionaries to handle the funeral. The beetle is a determined volunteer to make the shroud, McCreesh getting a dusky warmth from the altos’ statement. The digging of the grave, which the owls are happy to do, is illustrated by a falling glissando, more distinctly by Ferris, more nonchalantly by McCreesh, but his owls’ response has more eagerness. The central slow section sees the dove taking the role of chief mourner. Ferris finely realizes the tenderness the composer Dove requests, especially poignant in the closing melisma of ululation on ‘mourn’. McCreesh makes it more marmoreal, like a sacred meditation. The climax of the work, however, is the fortissimo psalm singing of the thrushes, Ferris with a sudden surge of ecstasy, McCreesh emphasising celebration. Ferris’s bell tolling is more dignified where McCreesh is more forceful, which matches the greater character of his volunteer to do this, the bull. The coda is a cacophony of birdsong, literally recalling the deceased, over which the sopranos descant to A and then make a stately descent to depict the birds’ sighing and sobbing, in both recordings a community actively engaged.
A sequence of folksong settings begins with Grainger’s of Brigg Fair, which must be the best known melody on this CD. But I’d guess few would know that only the first two verses belong to the original song, Grainger adding the others from different songs. This enables him to switch the chorus’s role from a dreamy humming to pointing a moral, whereupon the tenor soloist adds a descant ‘Ah’ and then a closing verse swearing fidelity. Robert Murray sings it in the manner of a country gentleman with suave ornamentation, but it’s beautifully intoned and has the conviction of ardour, especially in the appreciative savouring of the closing ‘slow off’, as Grainger terms it. Mind you, Mark Elder conducting the Hallé Choir in 2002 (Hallé CDHLL 7503) at 2:45 takes it a little faster than McCreesh’s 2:59 and perhaps thereby James Gilchrist sings more freely and naturally and his descant, in particular the A flat climax, is clearer.
Vaughan Williams’s The turtle dove is also well known and more artfully crafted. For instance, take the way the wind rises and falls in the upper parts in the humming chorus as the baritone soloist sings of roaming ten thousand miles, a microcosm of a landscape and undulating trek. Then, in the first choral verse the sopranos and contraltos’ fast chattering narrative is underpinned by the tenors’ and basses’ slow reflection on its essential feeling, ‘So deep in love’. Neal Davies is more emotive than Robert Murray and he beautifully catches the song’s apprehension about leaving a loved one which makes the close, when the loss is permanent, the more moving. I compared the 2011 recording by Tenebrae/Nigel Short (Signum Classics SIGCD 267). Timing at 3:18 to McCreesh’s 2:58, Short emphasises the latter element of RVW’s Andante sostenuto marking which makes the piece more pained, but also more studied and for me indulgent. Gabriel Crouch is a fine soloist but while you feel Neal Davies will resolutely travel forward, you sense Crouch will ever keep looking back.
Craft is also evident throughout RVW’s arrangement of Bushes and briars, here presented in its TTBB form, which displays a constant, subtly worked alternation of tenor and bass focus with pre and post echoes of reinforcing keywords set off against the narrative. McCreesh’s performance is fresh and direct with the interplay of the voices very clear. Timing at 2:10, however, for me it seems a mite slick in its eagerness, at least I felt this when I compared Camerata Musica Limburg/Jan Schumacher (Genuin GEN 89138, released 2009) at 2:44. Theirs is an account more of emotion recollected in tranquillity. I appreciated the gentle fusion of the part writing. There’s less spring than with McCreesh, but more lilt and a more moving tapered down close.
Arguably the most crafted piece of all is another TTBB one, RVW’s arrangement of The winter is gone, a romance whose ‘Ah’ sighs softly in turn underlay and overlay the words and epitomize the satisfying fulfilment of the terse narrative while the music manages to combine both the warm, relaxed, ambling lilt of the melody and hearty rhythmic buoyancy of the text. McCreesh can be compared again with Schumacher in a CD from 2012 (Genuin GEN 12224) and the contrast of timings is similar, McCreesh at 1:41 closer to RVW’s Allegretto tranquillo marking, Schumacher at 2:10 more savoured. I like the greater contrast Schumacher obtains between the brightly glowing tenors and richer edge of the bass parts, but McCreesh conveys the truer folksy quality of present exultation and youthful delight.
Grainger’s The three ravens is the only accompanied piece on this CD and that only occasionally, but the use of harmonium adds a feel of folky formality or, as McCreesh says in the booklet interview, ‘a concertina inside a pub’. For McCreesh the grim edge to Neal Davies’s delivery catches well the jarring of the words against the beauty of the melody. The humming chorus has a bleak chill. The 1998 recording by the Joyful Company of Singers, City of London Sinfonia/Richard Hickox (Chandos CHAN 9653) uses Grainger’s alternative accompaniment of flute and 4 clarinets which makes for a more alfresco, icily sanctified aura but soloist Stephen Varcoe is just euphonious, though the female ‘Ah’ chorus keening is more pained than McCreesh’s. He, however, conveys better the unyielding military spruceness of the final chorus until the final play of the sardonic refrain, which haunts the piece.
In The gallant weaver James MacMillan has created a heavenly folksong from Burns’s text. In his 2001 recording conducting the BBC Singers (Chandos CHAN 9997) MacMillan uses solo sopranos for the 3 soprano parts at the beginning, though this isn’t marked in the score, bringing appreciable delicacy to the double echo effects obtained by having 3 parts, a rippling angelic mirage yet at a certain distance. McCreesh’s body of sopranos and his approach generally is more present, earthy, less ethereal and thus closer to the folksong root. Timing at 6:11 to MacMillan’s 6:48 he’s more Adagietto than MacMillan’s marked Adagio but again this emphasises the folksy quality. The sopranos are more eager lovers, the lower parts’ simple declaration of love in their first long notes’ statement is firmer and when that statement comes late in the piece from all the parts in turn at normal tempo, the effect is one of a promise and picture of love through maturity.
The CD ends with Rest, RVW’s and Christina Rossetti’s SSATB take on death and resurrection, eloquent in its melodic restraint combined with harmonic edge. McCreesh blends dignity and warmth. The parts caress the text with a smooth flow, yet the pain is also there, notably in the masterly dynamic and harmonic tweaking at ‘with stillness that is almost Paradise’ (tr. 15, 1:32). I compared the 1987 recording by Quink Vocal Ensemble (Challenge Classics CC 72501). They sing one voice to a part. The effect is very clear, bright and luminous, as is the link with chant. Frequently a rhythmic variation in one part kicks against the ensemble quest for serenity. Timing at 3:29, however, they move forward in almost indecent haste in comparison with McCreesh’s 4:15, which finely judges the Andante sostenuto marking with a touch more emphasis on the first aspect. His choir brings more substance to the music, especially in its dynamic contrasts and climaxes, so that both more tenderness and anguish are evident.
Time and again I wondered why I haven’t realized before just how lovely so many of these partsongs are? Because I hadn’t heard them sung by the Gabrieli Consort.
Contents 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 the Spring (1923) [6:25] Sir Edward ELGAR
Owls (An Epitaph) (1907) [3:38] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Rest (1902) [4:15]