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Gary HIGGINSON (b. 1952)
Scenes and Messages
Two Pieces for solo flute, Op. 62 (1970/2017) [6:15]
Messages of Hope, Op. 87 (1987) [21:56]
Three Ben Jonson Songs, Op. 126b (1984/1994) [6:34]
Scenes from Shakespeare, Op. 164 (2009-2010) [17:15]
When Most I Wink, Then Do Mine Eyes Best See, Op. 147 [3:09]
Three Shakespeare Duets, Opus 167 (2006/2011) [9:42]
Sweet Song of the Summer Woods (reprise with birdsong), Op. 62 no. 2 (1970/2017) [2:56]
Laura Cioffi (flute)
Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano)
Oliver Brignall, Jonathan Hyde (baritone)
Alessandro Viale (piano)
rec. 2018, The Sheva Studios, Fulbeck, UK
SHEVA SH209 [67:47]

This is the second commercially recorded disc of music by Herefordshire-based composer Gary Higginson. I have already written for MusicWeb International about my enthusiasm for his previous album (Songs of Innocence and of Experience) which was released back in 2012 (review). That CD was framed by two eloquent William Blake song cycles. On this recording, the principal poetic inspiration is William Shakespeare, another of Higginson’s great literary heroes.

The Two Pieces for solo flute are fresh and charming; they somehow manage to sound timeless, one of the qualities I like best about Higginson’s output. The modality of ‘Landscape’ helps him achieve this effect, as does his refusal to indulge in extended playing techniques for their own sake, such as multiphonics or key clicks. So many composers use these effects to show that they know about them rather than for any specific emotional reason. The second piece, Sweet Song of the Summer Woods, is reprised at the end of the disc with added birdsong; the effect is enchanting, underlining Higginson’s claim in the booklet notes that his other great source of inspiration is nature itself.

Messages of Hope is the longest work on this CD and the grandest in scope. This song cycle is set in a small Oxfordshire village in the 1850s, but Higginson explains that “the sentiments could have applied to any community”. The text was compiled by the late Colin Pedley and the composer, partially from the writings of the Reverend Christopher Wordsworth (nephew of William Wordsworth). The cycle is scored for soprano, tenor, baritone and piano and begins most invitingly with ‘Entry into Stanford’. In this song, the influence of Britten hovers in the background, but Higginson manages to avoid the slightly stilted quality of the earlier composer’s word setting.

The second song is “partially in the style of a music hall ballad” (to quote the composer’s note again). The opening is very beautiful and little prepares us for the sudden and dramatic outburst in the middle of the song as the text describes “squalor and crowded rooms”. Higginson explores the sorrows as well as the joys of country life; the lack of sentimentality in his music is one of its greatest strengths. We find this contrast between lyricism and violence in some of the key works of British music such as Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony and Moeran’s G Minor Symphony.

Britten’s influence returns in the fourth song in the cycle, ‘The Railway’, with its effective throw-away ending. Throughout the cycle, the vocal writing is exceptionally telling, bearing witness to Higginson’s considerable singing experience (he trained first as a study singer at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama). Another positive quality is the way the composer allows space around his ideas rather than crowding too many details together. ‘Death in Stanford’ is perhaps the finest movement in the cycle and is firmly in the English song tradition. This is truly lovely music.

The “Three Ben Jonson Songs” are less intense but still of great interest. My favourite song here is the first, ‘Come my Celia’; it is a perfect gem.

Higginson’s Scenes from Shakespeare form an ambitious seventeen-minute cycle for piano solo, with each movement intended to encourage an interest in the plays amongst younger performers. I particularly liked the ‘Beatrice and Benedict’ movement, with its syncopated rhythms reminiscent of Kenneth Leighton. I wasn’t quite so attracted by the ‘Bosworth Field’ movement, but this is probably because I am (like most natives of Yorkshire) a Richard III admirer! Of the other movements, the most immediately appealing are ‘Prince Hal rejects Falstaff” and the sensitive ‘The Statue Awakes’. The latter has touches of Frank Bridge’s “The Spell” from his A Fairy Tale Suite. I remember hearing a private performance of ‘The Witches’ Dance’ a number of years ago and recall that the composer Arthur Butterworth was extremely enthusiastic about this movement.

I am not quite sure why the song ‘When most I wink, then mine eyes best see’ was inserted halfway through the Scenes from Shakespeare, as the piano cycle is not exactly short on musical variety. The song itself (a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 43) is undoubtedly one of Higginson’s finest; the piano accompaniment is distinctive, and the harmonies are a satisfying blend of old and new.

The Three Shakespeare Duets are scored for soprano, tenor, flute and piano. The first song ‘Blow, Blow thou Winter Wind’ benefits from splendid word setting, such as the section beginning “Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky”, with its slow moving piano chords and uneasy chromaticism. Even more attractive is the second song, ‘Lawn as White as Driven Snow’, with its parallel fifths in the piano part adding an appealing antique quality; there is a lightness of touch here that is most engaging and I have to say that this is my favourite track on the album. ‘It was a lover and his lass’ has of course been set innumerable times and is perhaps best known in the Peter Warlock version; Vaughan Williams also provided a superb vocal duet. Higginson’s approach has its own charms and can certainly hold its own in such august company.

I have not mentioned the performances, which seem ideal to me. The performers are all young and obviously keen about the music; they respond with freshness and enthusiasm; particular praise should be given to Alessandro Viale for his sensitive pianism in the songs and the Scenes from Shakespeare. The recorded sound is crisp and clear but never dry. The music of Gary Higginson clearly deserves much wider recognition than it has received so far, and I sincerely hope that this beautifully produced disc helps this to happen.

The attractive cover image reproduces a very fine watercolour by Marcelle Seabourne; it is certainly appropriate for a recording of such quintessentially English music.

All in all, this is a deeply appealing disc, which I warmly recommend. On the evidence of this recording, the English song tradition is in safe hands.

David Jennings


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