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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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A Walk with Ivor Gurney Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis [14:18] Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Like as the Hart [7:09] Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty [5:51] Judith BINGHAM (b.1952) A Walk with Ivor Gurney (words by Ivor Gurney; world premiere recording) [12:15] Ivor GURNEY
By a Bierside (orch. Herbert HOWELLS) [4:28]
In Flanders (orch. Herbert HOWELLS) [3:16]
Sleep (orch. Gerald FINZI, 1901-1956) [3:33] Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS
An Oxford Elegy [22:54]
Valiant for Truth [5:27]
Lord, Thou has been our refuge [8:18]
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo-soprano); Simon Callow (narrator)
Aurora Orchestra/Nigel Short
rec. 2018, St Giles-without-Cripplegate, London
Texts included SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD557 [44:06 + 43:30]
The cover of this CD includes an image of the inspiring Ivor Gurney stained glass window in Gloucester Cathedral, designed by Tom Denny. It’s relevant to mention that because much of the music contained on these discs was performed by Dame Sarah Connolly and Tenebrae at a concert in the Cathedral in August 2013, which was given to raise funds towards the installation of the window. For some reason that event passed me by: had I known about it I would have been there like a shot. Happily, I can now catch up with the programme on disc. In fact, I heard Tenebrae perform some of this music, including the Judith Bigham composition, during a memorable concert at this year’s Three Choirs Festival (review).
It seems to me that the programme has been devised very logically and with no little care, so it makes sense to consider the performances on these discs in sequence.
Ivor Gurney and Herbert Howells met when they were both articled pupils of Sir Herbert Brewer, the Organist of Gloucester Cathedral from 1896 to 1928. They both attended a concert at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral in September 1910 at which, immediately before a performance of The Dream of Gerontius, a composer previously unknown to either of them conducted the first performance of his new work for strings. The work, of course, was the ‘Tallis’ Fantasia and the composer was Ralph Vaughan Williams. The experience had a profound impact on both of these young ‘prentice musicians. So, VW’s great Fantasia is a logical opener to this programme. Nigel Short’s performance took me by surprise somewhat on account of its urgency. He takes just 14:16 whereas the classic account conducted by Sir John Barbirolli (review) and the more recent and equally fine version from Sir Mark Elder (review) play for 16:13 and 16:08 respectively. However, though Short is on the swift side I warmed to his reading after hearing it a couple of times. More importantly, never did the performance strike me as perfunctory in the way that a performance directed by Roman Simovic does, even though at 14:26 his playing time is close to Short’s (review). It’s true that there are times when I wished for more spaciousness in Short’s performance but I wonder if he was seeking to convey to us something of the thrill that Howells and Gurney experienced when the piece was first unveiled. Whether or not that was his intention, I found his approach convincing and the Aurora Orchestra plays excellently for him.
We then hear a piece by each of the two sometime colleagues. Like as the Hart was composed in 1941 as one of a set of six anthems ‘in time of war’. You wouldn’t immediately associate the generously lyrical music with wartime, although in his notes Philip Lancaster rightly draws attention to the sharpness of tone (my terminology, not his) at the words ‘where is now thy God’. The glorious melody heard at the opening, and which returns towards the close, is unfolded wonderfully by the gentlemen of Tenebrae. The entire anthem is inspired but that melody alone would have been sufficient to gain for the piece classic status among the repertoire of the English Church. The same classic status doesn’t apply to Gurney’s Since I believe in God the Father Almighty. Written in 1925, just before he abandoned composition, it’s one of his very few choral pieces. It languished in complete obscurity until 2012 when it was performed by Adrian Partington and the Choir of Gloucester Cathedral who went on to record it for the first time in 2014 (review). Philip Lancaster modestly omits to mention in his splendid booklet essay that it was he who rediscovered Gurney’s anthem; he edited it for publication on behalf of the Ivor Gurney Trust. It’s scored for a cappella double choir and it’s a setting of lines by Robert Bridges. As Mr Lancaster points out, Graves’ poem is itself an ambivalent expression of faith and this probably suited Gurney. The harmonies are often complex, even anguished, conveying a sense of struggle. There are, however, calmer passages and I wonder if Gurney’s more tranquil musical response to some of the words represents his recall of earlier, more relaxed times in his youth at Gloucester Cathedral. Having heard this intense piece a few times in the last few years, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a most interesting composition, worthy of a place in the repertoire. The present performance is superb.
A Walk with Ivor Gurney was commissioned by Tenebrae from Judith Bingham. I first heard it when Tenebrae brought it to the Three Choirs festival in 2018 (review). The piece is scored for a cappella chorus and there’s a very important part for a solo mezzo-soprano which I believe was conceived for Dame Sarah Connolly, who sings it here. Judith Bingham’s idea, a most original one, was to combine in her score the Gloucestershire of Gurney’s time and its ancient past by assembling a text drawn from Gurney’s own poetry and some Latin inscriptions found on Roman tombs in the county. The male voices sing the inscriptions from an off-stage position while the ladies of the chorus, often singing wordlessly, work with the soloist. I found it difficult to assimilate the piece on a first hearing but now that I’ve had the chance further to acquaint myself with it I believe that the choral parts, both on- and off-stage, evoke wonderfully the past reaching out to the present – or, at least to Gurney’s present. The solo part calls for very expressive singing, which Dame Sarah provides. I was intrigued by the piece the first time I heard it; now I think it’s a really imaginative work, conveying a sense of time and place through discerningly chosen texts set to very eloquent music. This is its first recording and it’s a superb one.
Gurney can’t have had that much leisure for composting music while serving at the Front during the war; perhaps the writing of poetry was a more practical proposition. Two of the songs included here, By a Bierside and In Flanders were written during active service. The manuscript of By a Bierside, a setting of lines by John Masefield, is inscribed ‘Laventie, August 1916’. In Flanders is a yearning, nostalgic setting of wartime lines by Gurney’s great friend F. W. Harvey. The manuscript allows us to date the composition very precisely for it is inscribed ‘Crucifix Corner, Thiepval, 11 January 1917’. Gurney sent the manuscripts of both songs home to Herbert Howells shortly after they were written. Prof. Jeremy Dibble, has written that the orchestrations were made at the suggestion of either Stanford or Charles Wood. Stanford conducted the first performance in March 1917 but thereafter the songs were almost never heard in their orchestral versions until Christopher Maltman made a fine recording of them in 1998 (review). I enjoyed Sarah Connolly’s account of both songs very much indeed. Howells’ orchestrations are sensitively done and enhance the songs nicely. Incidentally, there were two other songs that Gurney wrote while serving in France: Even such is time and Severn Meadows. Gurney sent the first draft of Even such is time to his long-time supporter, Marion Scott who passed it on to Howells but he didn’t like the ending of the song and so did not orchestrate it. Subsequently Gurney revised the song, changing the ending. In 2003 the composer Ian Venables orchestrated those two songs, using, of course, Gurney’s final version of Even such is time. Venables used similar orchestral forces to those employed by Howells. I’ve heard his orchestrations and they seem to me to be very successful indeed. It’s a shame that the Howells/Venables set of all four songs were not included here.
Another composer who orchestrated some Gurney songs was Gerald Finzi who, in 1949, scored four of Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs for string orchestra. (All four are included on the aforementioned Maltman disc.) Sarah Connolly has selected Sleep, one of the truly great English songs, and she delivers it marvellously. Finzi’s scoring for strings is refined and tasteful.
The rest of the programme is devoted to music by Vaughan Williams. When I first saw the disc contents I couldn’t understand how An Oxford Elegy would sit in a Gurney-themed programme. However, Philip Lancaster, citing VW’s biographer, Michael Kennedy, makes an extremely strong case for the piece’s relevance to the theme. It’s something of a Cinderella among VW’s works and its scoring for narrator, chorus and orchestra makes it awkward to programme. Simon Callow is a most persuasive narrator. He’s recorded in the foreground and this, allied to his impeccable enunciation of the text, means that Matthew Arnold’s words come over very clearly. The choir and orchestra make sensitive contributions and all in all a very good case indeed is made for this work.
There’s no need to “make a case” for Valiant for Truth so far as I’m concerned. It’s one of VW’s finest short choral works and I love its visionary tone. There are two short but important alto solo passages. These are normally sung by a member of the choir but here Sarah Connolly is on hand to add unusual lustre to these solos. This marvellous work receives a splendid performance, as does Lord thou hast been our refuge. This too is a visionary work. Tenebrae sing it superbly and towards the end the organ (James Sherlock) and the shining trumpet of Christopher Deacon make a marvellous impact, bringing out the great hymn tune ‘St Anne’ in all its grandeur. The closing pages, fervently sung, bring this programme to a richly satisfying conclusion.
Throughout this disc the singing of Tenebrae confirms their stature as one of the UK’s premier chamber choirs. Nigel Short has clearly prepared them for these assignments with great thoroughness and he conducts the programme with evident empathy. The contributions of the Aurora orchestra are excellent too. The technical aspects of the production were in the expert hands of producer Nicholas Parker and engineer Mike Hatch. They’ve done a fine job. The icing on the cake comes in the shape of Philip Lancaster’s outstanding booklet essay which is not only highly informative but also draws the threads of the programme together most successfully.
This imaginatively conceived and superbly executed programme is a wonderful way to honour one of the most tragic figures in twentieth-century British music. Tenebrae have done the memory of Ivor Gurney proud.