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Ben PARRY (b. 1965)
The Hours
The Choir of Royal Holloway/Rupert Gough
Liam Condon (organ), Simon Marlow (piano)
rec. 2018, St. Barnabus, Ealing, UK

Ben Parry is a remarkably versatile and gifted musician. Not only a composer, but also a conductor (presently as assistant choirmaster at King’s Cambridge), a producer, and a solo singer, in which capacity he was a member of The Swingle Singers, and has performed in stage musicals, notably ‘City of Angels’.

As with his singing, Parry’s compositions encompass light as well as ‘classical’ genres. Many of his commissioned works have been collaborations with the poet Garth Bardsley, and several of Bardsley’s texts are set in this CD. It is a most interesting collection; the title of the disc, ‘The Hours’, reflects an important thread running through the programme, different times of day, though we also encounter also different times of year and different locations, as well as various climatic conditions.

Another feature is the presence of traditional material – songs from all over of Britain, including famous Scottish and Welsh folk melodies. It is quite brave –but a measure of Parry’s creative confidence – that you’ll find here numerous texts that are already familiar to us from the work of more celebrated composers. ‘My spirit sang all day’ is memorable in Finzi’s setting, ‘New Year Carol’ exists in a lovely version by Britten, and ‘Ave verum corpus’ has of course inspired so many great composers.

The mention of Britten brings to mind that his influence is a notable one in these choral numbers by Parry. It’s there in the way he responds musically to visual and sensory images; subtly yet explicitly, as in the opening of the first track, ‘Sun Song’, depicting the growing warmth and light of daybreak, or the evocative piano writing that accompanies ‘Snow’ on track 9 (beautifully played by Simon Marlow).

Garth Bardsley’s poetry, which I had not come across before, enriches this CD greatly. His poems here are written in ‘conventional’ but beautiful language (i.e actual sentences and punctuation, shock horror), and two of them are cast in the form of sonnets. That resonates with Shakespeare’s wonderful Sonnet 27 on track 16, one of Parry’s finest settings.

There are also several Latin texts; in addition to ‘Ave verum’, there is the ‘Nunc Dimittis’, ‘O nata lux’, as well as ‘First Day’ which sets the opening of the Book of Genesis. Question; why set this in Latin? Seems a strange decision, and may detract from immediacy of its communication.

The Choir of Royal Holloway, part of the University of London, will be familiar to many listeners. They are, as you can see from the photo in the CD’s packaging, a student choir, all very young. Their sensitivity to the flow of the music and their perfection of tuning and ensemble is quite superb, and lots of credit must go to the direction of Rupert Gough. Diction is not always clear; but that is, I’m afraid, in the nature of most of this music, with sustained and often quite dense textures, making it difficult to project the words. What is less pleasant, and the one thing that prevents this singing to be of the very highest standard, is the ingratiating vibrato that is a characteristic of the soprano line. Every single sustained note has an ‘expressive’ wobble at the end of it. This is acceptable and typical in pop music or stage musicals; here, especially in the a cappella numbers, it becomes really tiring and distracting. It only takes one singer……

That leads on to another problem; seventy-seven minutes of slow moving, sustained music is hard going. I would recommend, as I did for my second and third hearings, listening to it a five or six tracks at a time. Few of the tracks are much over four minutes’ duration, so it is quite a relief to get to ‘Eclipse’ on track 20, another Bardsley setting, which is more extended and with much more variety of texture and movement. A fine piece, which gets the best singing from the choir.

I’m not sure that the juxtaposition of newly composed pieces and traditional material – albeit in contemporary if straightforward arrangements – really works. But I’m aware that is a very personal reaction, and others might well be positively attracted by the changes of focus.

Despite my reservations, I have to say that this is in many ways a fine disc, lovingly prepared and presented by Rupert Gough and the choir with their musical collaborators, and it contains numerous items I shall greatly enjoy returning to.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

Sun Soul [5:41]
Early One Morning [2:50]
First Day [4:50]
My Heart’s in the Highlands [3:51]
Music: An Ode [2:53]
(Soloist: Isabelle Palmer, soprano)
Spring Sonnet I [2:41]
Spring Sonnet II [3:25]
Ye banks and braes [3:17]
Snow [4:58]
New Year Carol [3:08]
My Spirit Sang All Day [2:00]
O nata lux [2:34]
Ave verum corpus [3:16]
God be in my head [1:47]
The Lord’s Prayer [1:55]
Sonnet XXVII [3:03]
Ar hyd y nos [3:59]
(Soloist: Ben Richards, bass)
Nunc Dimittis [3:45]
Golden Slumbers [3:58]
Eclipse [8:49]
Lighten our Darkness [4:52]

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