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Michael HURD (1928-2006)
Choral Music (Volume 2) & Complete Solo Songs
Marta Fontanals-Simmons (soprano)
Sarah Mapplebeck (mezzo-soprano)
Marcus Farnsworth (baritone)
Benjamin Hulett (tenor)
Simon Lepper (piano)
Hertfordshire Chorus
London Orchestra da Camera/David Temple
rec. 2017, Church of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London (Choral works); Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Monmouth (songs)
Texts included
LYRITA SRCD366 [72:07 + 39:45]

Lyrita are doing great things for the music of Michael Hurd. Following their release of the chamber operas, The Aspern Papers and The Night of the Wedding (review), they commenced a survey of his choral music. I found much to enjoy in Volume 1 which was sung by the Vasari Singers (review), so I was very pleased to receive the follow-up release, and all the more so which I discovered that Lyrita has added an extra CD which contains all of Hurd’s solo songs.

As I commented when reviewing Volume 1, Hurd had a discerning eye for a text to set. That trait is again to the fore here, both in the choral pieces and in the solo songs. Moreover, he ranged widely in his choice of texts; clearly widely read, his eye frequently alighted on an unfamiliar text. This is apparent in This Day to Man, subtitled ‘Six Hymns for the Nativity’. Few of the poems that he chose have been frequently set to music though some composers have set as ‘Chanticleer’s Carol’ – or a similar title - the words of Hurd’s third hymn. He also set some verses by Robert Southwell in the final hymn and listeners will recognise the last stanza that Hurd chose to set from ‘This little babe’ in Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols. In this choral work, which is for SATB and chamber orchestra, Hurd’s writing is consistently attractive and melodious. In fact, much of the melodic material seems to flow from the melody heard in the first of the hymns. I enjoyed this work very much.

A Song for St Cecilia sets for SATB and orchestra the poem by Dryden which Handel, among others, also set. The work falls into five clear sections, each of which is separately tracked. The second section, ‘What passion cannot music raise and quell?’ is calm and beautiful. I wasn’t surprised to find Hurd using brass fanfares in ‘The trumpet’s loud clangour’; this section, the third, is suitably vigorous. Equally unsurprising – but lovely to hear - is the extended duet for two flutes that opens the next section. ‘The soft complaining flute’. The choral music which is thereby introduced uses just the female voices and it’s very appealing. Towards the end of the final section there comes a passage that employs what is for this composer a surprising amount of overt dissonance in the orchestral parts (track 11, from 2:03). I was mildly amused to read in the notes that this occasioned an emergency conference during the sessions: were the parts correct; could Hurd have meant this? It seems that he did, and within a few moments all is resolved into a decidedly harmonious and joyous conclusion.

The Phoenix and the Turtle sets Shakespeare’s poem, published in 1601, for mezzo, SATB, strings and timpani. Paul Conway says in his notes that this is “one of [Hurd’s] most intricately wrought and poignant settings”. Based on the music by Hurd that I’ve experienced to date, I would agree. I found it a very rewarding score. The important mezzo part is sung lustrously by Marta Fontanals-Simmons; she and the chorus give an eloquent account of the piece. Music’s Praise for SATB and strings, sets four different poems and once again we find Hurd setting the less familiar – only Shakespeare’s ‘Orpheus with his Lute’ is widely known. That’s the third piece in the set; the music dances along brightly. Earlier, the setting that really caught my ear was the second one, ‘When whisp’ring strains do softly steal’. Paul Conway singles out this movement for special praise and he’s right to do so. After a lengthy string introduction, the choral writing is delightfully lyrical. Throughout the movement the strings truly complement the voices. There’s genuine beauty, too, in the final movement, a setting of lines by Robert Herrick. Here the music is calm and radiant; this finale is so English in voice. I found Music’s Praise was a winning work.

The programme ends with A Choral Cantata, which is a three-movement work for SATB with brass, organ and timpani. The middle movement includes a notable role for a solo soprano. Sarah Mapplebeck, who is a member of the Hertfordshire Chorus, sings this challenging music very well indeed. Paul Conway aptly describes this middle movement as “tranquil and elegant”. It’s surrounded by two much more extrovert movements which the choir sings with evident enthusiasm.

Throughout their programme the Hertfordshire Chorus prove to be splendid advocates for Michael Hurd’s music. The singing gives great pleasure and they sound to be enjoying themselves. And why not, for this is most attractive music that sounds enjoyable and rewarding to sing. The choral writing is consistently effective and full of appealing melodies and harmonies. David Temple has clearly prepared his choir very thoroughly and he conducts the performances very well. The orchestral accompaniments are, in truth, more than “mere” accompaniments. Hurd’s instrumental writing is very pleasing to hear and it complements the vocal writing really well. I hope these excellent performances will gain a new audience for these enjoyable pieces and will encourage other choirs to take them up.

Given that he was such an effective and instinctively melodious writer of vocal music it’s something of a surprise to learn that Michael Hurd’s entire output of solo songs plays for slightly less than 40 minutes. There’s an extra note in the booklet by John Talbot, who relates that Hurd composed 10 songs in 1948 and 1949, mainly while he was living in Gloucester. Six of them were later revised and incorporated into either The Night Swans or The Day’s Alarm. The other four are the ones recorded here as Four Early Songs. Incidentally, one of the four, ‘The Widow Bird’ also found its way into The Aspern Papers. Like all the songs here, the Four Early Songs were previously unknown to me but I found them very appealing. The melodic invention is excellent and the music fits the words very well indeed. Marcus Farnsworth, a singer I’ve heard and admired several times before, makes a fine job of them. He’s also on duty for The Day’s Alarm, a set of five songs to words by Paul Dehn (1902-1976). These are good songs. In ‘Song for a Thief’ Hurd frequently changes the music from a sharp key (D major) to a flat key (D flat major) which gives the song a very equivocal feel. In ‘Willow-Warbler’, the last of the set, the harmonies are constantly evolving and shifting in the piano part but so grateful is the vocal line above that the listener is almost unaware of the sophisticated harmonic changes.

Marcus Farnsworth also has the last four songs on the disc, concluding the programme with a musically breathless setting of The Ride by Night. The three Graves songs that precede it are all well worth hearing, not least ‘Dear love, why should you weep?’, which Paul Conway rightly describes as “fluent and graceful”. The last of the set, ‘The far side of your moon is black’, is lyrical and rather lovely.

The remaining songs fall to Benjamin Hulett. Most of the songs in The Night Swans are very short but the opening and closing songs are a bit more extended and seemed to me the most impressive. ‘The Night Swans’ is the opening song; it begins and closes in an introspective vein but in between the music flows very well. In ‘Water Midden’s Song’ I loved the very aptly rippling piano part which enhances the vocal melody really well. The last song, ‘Night Song’, is a soothing lullaby. Carmina Amoris sets a selection of Latin and Ancient Greek poems in English translations. My personal favourites here were ‘Elegy’, a translation of words by Plato, and ‘Epitaph’, the original text of which is by our old friend, Anon. ‘Elegy’ is a concise, patrician setting while the music for ‘Epitaph’ has an air of dignified melancholy which suits the words very well.

These songs should be better known. They are fully in the tradition of English song – Hurd was, of course, a biographer of Ivor Gurney – and they’re all finely crafted. They are well worth hearing – and well worth singing too, I fancy. Hurd’s songs receive splendid advocacy here from Marcus Farnsworth and Benjamin Hulett while Simon Lepper really brings the piano parts to life.

Lyrita’s documentation is up to their usual excellent standard. All the sung texts are provided – and clearly laid out – while Paul Conway’s notes are first rate. All the recordings have come out extremely well.

This is a most enjoyable and rewarding set. We have all of Michael Hurd’s songs here – and I’m very grateful for that – but I wonder if there’s scope for a third volume of choral works. I’d like to think so.

John Quinn

Disc contents
This Day to Man (1974) [19.57]
A Song for St Cecilia (1966) [15.29]
The Phoenix and the Turtle (1974) [12.05]
Music’s Praise (1968?) [14.55]
A Choral Cantata (1994) [9.40]
Four Early Songs for voice and piano (1948-49) [6:02]
The Night Swans (Walter de la Mare) (1952) [14:26]
Carmina Amoris (1979 rev.1998) [6:43]
The Day’s Alarm (Paul Dehn) (1991) [6:58]
Three Songs of Robert Graves (1995) [4:40]
The Ride by Night (Walter de la Mare) [0.54]


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