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Songs of Renewal
Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
The Passing of the Year (2000) [19:44]
Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
a blue true dream of sky (2003) [3:51]
Tarik O’REGAN (b. 1978)
Threshold of Night (2006) [6:03]
Will TODD (b. 1970)
Songs of Renewal (2018) [12:50]
Cecilia MCDOWALL (b. 1951)
Standing as I do before God (2015) [5:29]
Huw WATKINS (b. 1976)
The Phoenix and the Turtle (2014) [5:14]
Roderick WILLIAMS (b. 1965)
Love bade me welcome (2007) [3:46]
Everyone Sang (2018) [4:32]
Elizabeth Cragg (soprano), Huw Watkins (piano)
Bath Camerata/Benjamin Goodson
rec. 2018, Millfield School, Somerset, UK
Texts included

Bath Camerata is an elite chamber choir founded in 1986 by ex-Kings Singer, Nigel Perrin. In 2015 he was succeeded as Music Director by Benjamin Goodson.

Goodson and the choir have commissioned three new works on the theme of renewal and two of them - Everyone Sang by Roderick Williams and Will Todd’s Songs of Renewal – here receive their first recordings. In passing, I wonder what has become of the third commission? The Todd composition is a suite of three choral songs. Like everything else on this disc, apart from the Dove songs, it’s conceived for a cappella choir. The first of the three songs is ‘Me renovare’ in which the sung text consists solely of those two words. Jeremy Dibble says in his notes that while the song is “ostensibly a quasi-improvisation, [it] is essentially a set of variations on the words.” The music is fast and jazzy and clearly if it’s to make its effect it must be sung with great precision and vitality; that certainly happens here. Occasionally a bass drum accentuates the rhythmic drive that impels the music forward. I should imagine it’s very exciting to sing and hear in live performance. The middle song, ‘Return again’, which is a setting of lines by Andrew Motion, is gentle and hypnotic. Todd himself supplies the words for the concluding song, ‘Chorale’. Here, he’s writing in his most warm and winning style; the piece put me in mind of his outstanding Christmas carol, My Lord has come.

The new piece by Roderick Williams is a challenging setting of Siegfried Sassoon’s 1919 poem, Everyone Sang. This poem seems to be an expression of relief at the Armistice that ended World War I. Williams responds to the lines in a most original way. The opening is absolutely arresting. Whistles of the kind that were sounded when troops went ‘over the top’ are heard and then many of the singers vocalise freely, suggesting sirens and the din of the battlefield, while a few male voices sing the first line of the poem. Thereafter, in his setting of the rest of the poem Williams allows himself – or so it seems to me – to reflect the general relief at the ending of the conflict without writing music of explicit rejoicing. There’s a distinct note of ambivalence to the piece and in his setting of the concluding line – ‘The singing will never be done’ – I get the impression that Williams is directing our eyes back to those who didn’t make it. It’s a fascinating piece. More straightforward, if I may presume to use that word, is Williams’ setting of George Herbert’s poem, Love bade me welcome. This is from his Jazz Matins (2007). As Jeremy Dibble observes, the writing is “harmonically sumptuous” and I find the piece most appealing. As I listened, I wondered how much of a challenge it might have been for Williams to set to new music words which he must have sung on many occasions in Vaughan Williams’ wonderful setting which is one of the Five Mystical Songs.

I like very much Jonathan Dove’s set of seven songs for choir and piano, The Passing of the Year. I’ve previously remarked, in reviewing Dove’s music, that occasionally his music reminds me – in a good way – of John Adams, not least in his fondness for driving ostinato accompaniments. That trait is in evidence in a couple of these seven songs, which play pretty much without a break. I’m thinking of the opening ‘Invocation’, which has a pulsating piano accompaniment, and also of the third song, ‘Answer July’ where the music has light-footed energy, something which is accentuated by the crisp singing of Bath Camerata. The slower songs are all memorable, not least the fourth and fifth songs, ‘Hot Sun, Cool Fire’ and ‘Ah, Sun-flower!’, which seem to me to complement each other most effectively. The best songs, I think, are the last two. ‘Adieu! Farewell earth’s bliss’ is, in Jeremy Dibble’s words, ‘a penitential dirge’. The music is mesmerizingly slow and focussed and Bath Camerata display exemplary control in singing it. The set concludes with a setting of Tennyson’s ‘Ring out, wild bells’. We’ve just heard three songs all in slow tempi so the musical burst of energy in this last song provides a most effective contrast. Dove’s music invokes joyous peals of bells in both the piano part and the vocal lines and I like the way in which he springs a surprise by bringing the song to a quiet ending. These are very good songs and Bath Camerata do them extremely well.

In the Dove songs they are accompanied by Huw Watkins at the piano. A little later in the programme he features as composer. His The Phoenix and the Turtle was composed for Stile Antico and by sheer chance I reviewed that group’s own recording of the piece just a matter of days before auditioning this present disc. Stile Antico consists of 12 singers whereas Bath Camerata is a larger group (6/6/4/6). It’s interesting to hear the music sung by a bigger ensemble. In the busy music of the opening section of the piece I hear no less definition in Bath Camerata’s performance as compared to the Stile Antico performance. The Bath singers do the slower concluding section – the funeral rites for the two birds – very expressively. The text is what I think is a fairly unfamiliar poem by William Shakespeare. The poem is a lament for the death of ideal love though the notes accompanying the Stile Antico release mention a theory propounded in some quarters that it’s an allegory for Catholic martyrdom in Elizabethan England.

Judith Weir’s a blue true dream of sky is a setting of e e cummings’ poem I thank You God for most this amazing day. Weir used words from the third line of the poem for her title. It may be that those words resonated with her the most, but I wonder if the choice was made because Eric Whitacre had already penned a piece entitled I thank You God for most this amazing day (2000, rev 2009). Weir’s fascinating piece includes an ecstatic and demanding soprano solo, here taken splendidly by Elizabeth Cragg. Miss Cragg also features in Cecilia McDowall’s Standing as I do before God. This is a poignant and moving musical reflection on the death of Edith Cavell, executed as an alleged traitor by the German army in 1915. Not only is the piece moving but I think it also captures the dignity displayed by Cavell. Tarik O’Regan’s Threshold of Night is a challenging piece which sets a poem by Kathleen Raine. The poem is, in essence, a dialogue between a mother and her soon-to-be-born child. The mother is clearly anxious about the state of the world into which her child will be born and O’Regan captures that apprehension very effectively in his music,

This is a most interesting disc of contemporary choral music. All the pieces are very worthwhile and together they constitute a varied and ever-interesting programme. Bath Camerata sing all the music expertly and two things are evident from the conducting of Benjamin Goodson: firstly, that he’s prepared the choir with great thoroughness and, secondly, that he is fully committed to all this music – and has instilled similar commitment in the choir.

Engineer Oscar Torres and producer Adrian Peacock have recorded the choir most sympathetically. SOMM invariably provide excellent documentation and this release is no exception. The notes by Jeremy Dibble are extensive and excellent and all the texts are printed in an admirably clear typeface. If, like me, you enjoy twenty-first-century choral music then I think you’ll find this excellent disc very rewarding.

John Quinn

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