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John GARDNER (1917-2011)
The Ballad of the White Horse (1958-59) [48:25]
An English Ballad (1969) [16:05]
Ashley Riches (baritone)
City of London Choir, Paulina Voices
BBC Concert Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
rec. 2017, Air Studios, London
Texts included

In 2012, EM Records released a CD of mostly Christmas music by John Gardner. As on this follow-up disc, the music was performed by the City of London Choir and Paulina Voices conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton (review).

Gardner composed both of the works on this present disc with amateur musicians in mind. The Ballad of the White Horse was written for the Dorset Guild of Singers, an umbrella organisation which brought together a number of amateur choirs in the county for an annual concert with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. The White Horse in question is the Uffington White Horse, pictured on the cover of the booklet. This is a prehistoric figure of a horse carved thousands of years ago into the landscape of the Berkshire Downs. The image of the horse was formed by digging trenches and filling them with white chalk. The White Horse was a key element in the epic poem The Ballad of the White Horse (1911) by G K Chesterton, which dealt with the exploits of King Alfred the Great. Gardner used the poem as the basis for his cantata but in order to give the musical work a manageable length, drastic pruning was necessary. Chesterton’s poem consists of more than 500 verses and Gardner used about 20% of the text. Even so, the amount of text that’s left is substantial; fortunately, Gardner set it in an economical fashion and there’s little if any word repetition. Incidentally, one “casualty” of Gardner’s editing is the famous legend of Alfred burning the cakes; there simply wasn’t scope, I suspect, to include it and retain the coherence and manageable length of the cantata.

The work is scored for baritone soloist, SATB chorus and orchestra. The choral writing strikes me as fairly straightforward. For example, there’s not a great deal of counterpoint in the choir’s material but, then, as the choir is essentially telling the story, I think that counterpoint would cloud the issue and get in the way of the narrative. I suspect also that Gardner wanted to give the Dorset amateur singers something to sing that they’d enjoy and which would present them with some challenges whilst not stretching their capabilities beyond the level at which they would be able to have the satisfaction of giving a successful performance. That’s a laudable aim in which I believe he succeeded. Given that self-imposed limitation on the choral writing, it follows that the orchestra needs to provide colour as well as much of the harmonic and rhythmic variety. Again, Gardner is successful here; the orchestration is descriptive and attractive. The baritone solos, clearly designed for a professional, are technically a bit more challenging.

The cantata is cast in eight sections and Gardner’s editing forges what remains of Chesterton’s poem into a coherent sequence. The narrative first of all sets the scene by telling quite economically, of the origins of the White Horse. Then, in ‘The Northmen’, the invasion of the Danes is described briefly. Alfred then encounters a vision of the Virgin Mary before assembling warriors to fight the invader. After the longest section of the work, ‘The Harp of Alfred’, there’s a depiction of one of the battles he fought against the Danes, ‘The Battle of Ethandune’. There follows a section describing the baptism of the Danes’ king, Guthrum, before in the final section, ‘The Scouring of the Horse’, Alfred enjoins his followers – and posterity – to keep the Horse scoured (cleaned). I admire the way John Gardner concludes this section – and the work. Eschewing a celebratory, crowd-pleasing ending, the very last stanza is sung by the soloist. The music is tinged with resigned pessimism: despite Alfred’s instructions, the Horse was neglected. Remember that this cantata was written for a collective of amateur singers to sing at their big annual concert with (Sir) Charles Groves and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra; it speaks to Gardner’s musical integrity that he chose to end his cantata in a subdued fashion. In fact, I think those last couple of minutes contain the best music in the piece.

Elsewhere. I have to admit to one or two reservations. Though there’s quite a lot of effective choral writing, that aspect of the score didn’t always grab and retain my attention – though the colourful orchestration consistently engaged me. One or two passages don’t quite come off. One example is ‘The Northmen’. The words describe the invasion of pagan Danes and their plundering but I don’t detect any fear in the choir’s music; I would have expected darker, more dramatic music. Later, ‘The Baptism of Guthrum’ shows the Danish king submitting to Christianity but the music seems low key to me. Indeed, throughout the work I wish the choral writing had had a bit more grit or bite. I have to say, though, that Chesterton’s poem is not the most gripping of texts; it is, shall we say, of its time. The Ballad of the White Horse is enjoyable to hear but doesn’t quite deliver, though the music is consistently attractive. The combined choral forces of the City of London Choir and Paulina Voices sing with skill and commitment while Ashley Riches is an effective soloist. The colourful orchestral score is safe in the hands of the BBC Concert Orchestra.

An English Ballad is a purely orchestral score. It was composed for the London Junior Orchestra but just because the word ‘junior’ appeared in that orchestra’s title don’t be misled into thinking this is a trivial, still less a “dumbed-down” piece. Yes, it’s entertaining – in the true sense of the word – but it gives the players a thorough work-out. And the LJO must have had some very accomplished principal players in its ranks because there are a significant number of solo passages, all of them testing, especially for the flute and bassoon principals.

The work was inspired by the old verse that tells of a squire coming home one evening and finding that his lady has run off with a gypsy. Beyond admitting that, however, John Gardner adamantly refused to divulge the work‘s programme: we are told in the notes that he loved Dukas’s L’Apprenti Sorcier when he first heard it but when he later learned the story behind it, the work lost its appeal. The score is appealing and inventive and Gardner has one particular surprise up his sleeve: the inclusion of an electric guitar. I don’t think that instrument is involved until 7:05. At that point, the guitar has a meditative solo, paving the way for other solo instruments to join in. The guitar adds an unusual and effective timbre to the score but I do feel that in this slower passage, which runs to 10:25, the piece rather seems to lose its way. After that episode, the full orchestra resumes and momentum is restored. At 11:52 the guitar leads the way in a romping, light-footed new idea which has a folk idiom to it. This music is great fun – you feel your feet tapping along – and one expects the piece to end in this high-spirited vein. Gardner has other ideas, though, and unexpectedly the last few pages are quite subdued – apart, that is, for the last, emphatic chord. An English Ballad is a bright and effective piece.

John Gardener’s music has been well served once again by Hilary Davan Wetton and EM Records. Neither of these works has been recorded before and the disc is full of appealing music, all of which is performed with commitment and skill. The recorded sound is very good and the excellent documentation includes comprehensive and valuable notes written by the composer’s son, Chris Gardner.

John Quinn

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