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The Gluepot Connection Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
The Full Heart (1916 rev. 1921) [4:28] Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Four Seasonal Songs (1956) [8:22] John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The Hills (1953) [3:00] Arnold BAX (1873-1953)
I sing of a Maiden that is makeless (1923) [4:51] Alan BUSH (1900-1995)
Like Rivers Flowing (1957) [3:26] Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
On Craig Dhu (1907) [3:50] Elisabeth LUTYENS (1906-1983)
Verses of Love (1970) [7:20] Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Songs of Springtime (1931) [15:00] William WALTON (1902-1983)
Where does the uttered Music go? (1946) [6:17] John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Twilight Night (1922) [2:57] Alan BUSH (1900-1995)
Lidice (1947) [4:56] Arnold BAX (1873-1953)
Mater Ora Filium (1921) [10:56]
Londinium Chamber Choir/Andrew Griffiths
rec. 2017, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London SOMM SOMMCD0180 [75:26]
Over time I have got used to the very high quality of Somm's engineering, presentation, programming and performances. But even by those high standards, this is a very fine disc indeed, possibly one of their finest.
Compendium discs are hard to programme effectively. Finding the mix of familiar to tempt the listener in, unfamiliar to lure the dedicated collector and then pull it all together with a coherent 'theme' is tricky. I absolutely love the idea behind this disc, intriguingly titled The Gluepot Connection, and the resulting programme is pure genius. The Gluepot named is in fact a pub in central London called The George. It was tantalisingly positioned near the stage door of the old Queens Hall, destroyed in German bombing on May 10th 1941. So close that no self-respecting musician working in the hall could ignore its lure, leading an exasperated Sir Henry Wood to christen it, while waiting for no doubt for various orchestral sections to make it back after a rehearsal break, that bloody Gluepot". The name, pardon the pun, stuck, long after the rubble of the Queens Hall had been cleared away. Indeed it went on to become one of the most popular meeting places for generations of composers, musicians and members of the London artistic scene. Hence all the music here is contributed by composers who at some time or another were part of the 'Gluepot community'.
As conductor Andrew Griffiths writes in his really excellent liner note; these composers ranged from the pastorally conservative John Ireland, the lushly romantic Bax, to the politically active Alan Bush and the serial-composing Elisabeth Lutyens. All of which results in a fascinating programme allowing the listener to compare and contrast. Some of the works here are receiving their first recordings: Rawsthorne's Four Seasonal Songs alongside Alan Bush's Like Rivers flowing and Lidice. Much of the rest is relatively familiar and available in various different performances and compilations. Lutyens's Verses of Love can be found on just one other disc—a survey of her work including chamber music and other vocal music on NMC. By definition, this programme is unique and so while it may be nip and tuck in terms of preferring one performance from this disc over another found elsewhere it is the totality of the programme here that is especially pleasing.
Andrew Griffiths conducts the chamber choir called Londinium. This is an amateur group made up of forty voices split 11:10:9:10. Any concerns about the skill level of an amateur ensemble when approaching this very taxing music is quickly allayed. Particularly when the music is written with the parts relatively closely voiced - within the stave so to speak - Griffiths achieves a quite superb rich blend and balance across all the parts. By that standard when the soprano line is sent well above the treble stave there is a slight loss of tonal warmth and blend but this is a minor passing observation. Somm have recorded Ireland's The Hills and Delius' On Craig Dhu with the ever excellent Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir under Paul Spicer, and it makes for an interesting comparison. Griffiths favours a richer blended sound which exploits the very warm acoustic of All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak. Spicer prefers a sound which allows the inner writing to be more clearly differentiated—his acoustic, while still supportive, is not as resonant as the one for Griffiths. In turn Spicer's soprano line manage to stay fractionally fresher-toned as their musical lines ascend. On Craig Dhu and the two Bax works I sing of a Maiden that is makeless and Mater Ora filium turned up on the relatively recent recital on Naxos from George Parris and The Carice Singers. Other Naxos discs from those same artists include the two Ireland works here again as well as the Moeran Songs of Springtime on one disc and the Warlock The Full Heart on a third. These Naxos discs have been rightly praised, and certainly the singing has a freshness and dynamism that is most impressive. That said, this new disc has a collective conviction and real sensitivity to the text(s) and an engagement with the varied styles of each composer that is massively compelling.
Musically, the quality of all the works included here is very high. With the familiar works, all of those mentioned above, that comes as no surprise. Revisiting Ireland's The Hills, written as part of the 1953 Coronation anthology A Garland for the Queen, is a perennial delight; the nostalgic reference to the slow movement of Elgar's Symphony No.1 is always achingly moving. Twinning the Delius with the young Warlock's earliest choral work A Full Heart, written as his response to the older composer's work, is another example of the intelligent programming on display here. Another factor is that Griffiths is very attuned to how the choir are alert to the detail of the text. I like the way they engage with the words without any mannered over-pointing or the fussy musical phrasing that some choir conductors seem to mistake as being "musical". Griffiths allows the musical lines to flow and quite literally breathe.
The Rawsthorne premiere of the Four Seasonal Songs makes a good partner with the Moeran cycle. I was a little surprised that Rawsthorne, like Moeran, writes a homage to the English Madrigal writers of some centuries earlier. Griffiths describes Rawsthorne as "prodigiously talented". This short set of four settings running just under ten minutes are lucidly but demandingly written; the sopranos in particular have to be as agile as they are accurate. The Londinium ladies are a little taxed in the second movement To the Spring. The gem of the set is the third Autumn, chilly static writing beautifully illustrating Joshua Sylvester's 16th Century text. Such is this music's instant appeal I am rather at a loss to explain how it has had to wait this long for a recording. Moeran's cycle turns up on a lot this type of choral anthology. I enjoyed Griffiths' performance here as much as any. Again the great virtue of the choir's tonal blend and attention to the musical phrase plays great dividends in this subtly skilled work. The two Bush premieres are likewise real discoveries. The dedication of Like Rivers Flowing to the Llangollen Welsh Festival in 1957 perhaps explains why it is less musically radical than perhaps I was expecting. This is Bush the composer of the people for the people. Bush's Lidice is an intensely powerful musical response written in 1947 to the destruction of that Czech village by the Nazis as a reprisal for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Somm have included a photograph of Bush conducting the first performance on the site of the destroyed village; what a moving occasion that must have been. Bush's music is muted in its intense expression. Rather than any outburst of rage or anger, this takes the form of a mainly quiet eulogy with words by his wife Nancy Bush. The mainly homophonic writing giving the work a hymn-like character with dissonance firmly controlled. Again, quite how this work can have taken some 70 years to receive a commercial recording is a mystery.
The Lutyens work Verses of Love, as mentioned, has been recorded before but this is another absolute gem. The most recent work on the disc dating from 1970, this piece by "Twelve-tone Lizzie" explores the possibilities of choral writing more explicitly than some of the other works here. The chords clash with a deliciously ringing brilliance and Lutyens uses glissandi and harmonic clusters to capture. As Griffiths puts it so well: "the hushed rapture of Ben Johnson's text". Aside from Bax's Mater Ora Filium, this is the longest individual work recorded here, another real find. It is challenging for any choir but performed here with exactly that sense of rapt intensity that is very hard to sustain but utterly compelling to listen to.
Of the remaining works, Walton's Where does the uttered music go gets a very fine performance. So does the big Bax tribute to the Byrd Mass in Five Parts: Mater Ora Filium which closes the disc. This has been frequently recorded and it is one of Bax's masterpieces. Stephen Cleobury's version from Kings has always sounded to me too chaste and rather perfunctorily sung. His boy trebles struggle with the final peroration too in a slightly wince-worthy way. Probably my favourite version is by Ralph Allwood and his young Rudolfus choir who combine a sense of scale and fresh-voiced ardour while building towards a suitably fervent climax. This current performance by Londinium caps off this excellent disc very effectively too, not wholly displacing Allwood's version but certainly running it close. Parris on Naxos is good but by taking a full two minutes more the music risks sagging along the way. Perhaps this approach by massed choirs in a cavernous acoustic would be rather impressive; here the excellent Carice singers sound simply stretched.
Backing up the artistic excellence of this disc is Somm's reliably fine presentation. The booklet cover reproduces the pub sign. The extended liner essay by Andrew Griffiths is insightful, affectionate and informative. Full sung texts are included—as with the main essay all in English only. The Somm production and engineering from Adrian Peacock and David Hinitt respectively is very fine. I must admit to not remembering All Hallows as having quite such a generous acoustic as it is rendered here but the recording serves both the music and the style of the conductor and choir very well. I am a fan of Somm—they produce consistently impressive discs—but even by those standards this is rather special. Hopefully, the first of a series of collaborations between label and artists.
A postscript: rather inspired by this disc I decided to do a pilgrimage to The George pub. The destruction of the Queens Hall meant that for musicians today the main London concert halls are located well away from its Langham Place location so I had never had 'professsional' cause to pay a visit previously. And, with the old BBC Theatre used for very few concerts in recent years, the opportunities for a musician to be 'stuck' in the pub while working were limited. I arrived at the location to find it shrouded in a developer's scaffolding. It is meant to reappear again as a pub but my sneaking suspicion is that it will become a bijou eatery or winebar rather than an old-fashioned watering hole. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity for its significance as a centre for British artists in the 20th century to be marked.