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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. HerbertHowells) [4:28]
In Flanders (orch. Howells) [3:16]
Sleep (orch. Gerald Finzi) [3:33] Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS
An Oxford Elegy [22:54]
Valiant for Truth [5:27]
Lord, Thou hast 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]
I confess I came to this disc a year late: originally released in 2018 to coincide with the centenary of the end of the First World War, it gained most of its praise in that context. However, listening to it in the cold light of 2019 (on Remembrance Sunday, as it happens), what strikes me most is how well constructed it is, giving us an insight into the lives of that whole generation of English composers (Gurney, Howells, Vaughan Williams, Finzi) who were active in the first decades of the 20th century, and reflecting not just on their work but also their lives and how they have led the artistic reflections of others.
I assume Nigel Short must have put the programme together: anyway, the excellent booklet note from Phillip Lancaster explains the choice of repertoire and what binds it all together. Of the composers featured, Ivor Gurney is, surely, the most tragic of them all. He survived the war, having fought on the Western Front, but his mental health was destroyed by it, and it killed much of his potential as both a poet and a composer. He’s the cornerstone of this disc, and I loved the sense of restless that Tenebrae bring to his (highly ambiguous) Since I believe in God. Howells’ orchestrations of By a Bierside and In Flanders are brought to life beautifully by Sarah Connolly, as is Finzi’s orchestration of Sleep. In her piece, commissioned by Tenebrae in 2013, Judith Bingham pays tribute to Gurney’s walks through Gloucestershire and his fascination with the ancient Romans who lived there. I found it a better idea than I liked it as a piece, but it’s well performed and recorded.
Regardless of whether he constructed the programme, Nigel Short is certainly critical to his success, partly through the choice of music but, critically, through the spirit of collaboration that he fosters between the Aurora Orchestra and Tenebrae, his regular choir.
The Tallis Fantasia is a superb opener. It’s taken at a pretty fast pace, but the sound is fantastic. The Signum engineers have done a fantastic job of taking the acoustic of St Giles’ and making it sound as big as a cathedral, but the placing of the different orchestras and the quartet is entirely natural, giving a fantastic sense both of space and of spatial awareness to the music, allowing the whole thing to unfold naturally and very beautifully, right down to its beautiful final fade.
The Oxford Elegy is also an excellent choice, not just because of its mood of melancholic nostalgia, but because, as Michael Kennedy argues, it is Vaughan Williams’ tribute to the friends that he lost in both world wars. The combination of the gentle singing, from a choir placed at what sounds like a delicate distance, the warm orchestral playing, and the chewy narration of Simon Cowell, makes for a very involving and, at times, rather moving experience. Valiant for Truth has what I can best describe as a radiant quality to it, something that completely fits in with the subject matter but which is sung with utter conviction by the choir. So, too, it Lord thou hast been our refuge, one of RVW’s most spiritually thoughtful works. Howells’ Like as the hart is completely haunting and completely lovely.
So this definitely isn’t just a disc for the Great War Centenary: it’s musically excellent but it has something to say, not just to all music lovers, but to all humanitarians too.