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Penelope THWAITES (b. 1944)
From Five Continents: Choral Music and Songs
Psalm 24: The Earth is the Lord’s [3:41]
Psalm 121: I Will Lift up Mine Eyes [2:14]
Psalm 19: The Heavens tell out the Glory of God [3:57]
Psalm 23: The Lord is my Shepherd [3:50]
Missa Brevis [15:44]
Love Songs [5:35]
Five Shakespeare Songs [13:46]
India – Australia – Africa [10:11]
Christmas Songs [6:34]
Lead, Kindly Light [3:46]
St Teresa’s Bookmark [2:48]
Carolyn Sampson (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), William Dazeley (baritone), Penelope Thwaites (piano), Ex Cathedra/Jeffrey Skidmore
rec. 2019, Elgar Concert Hall, University of Birmingham, UK

For most of us, the name of Penelope Thwaites will forever be associated with the piano and in particular the music of Percy Grainger; she was very much the backbone of the outstanding Chandos series of Grainger’s music. Thwaites is also, however, a composer in her own right, and this collection of her choral and vocal works represents, so far as I can see, the first commercial recording devoted exclusively to her music.

Thwaites has stated that the music recorded here “reflects my experience of performing, writing and listening in over 30 countries around the world”. This might imply a variety of styles if not a range of multi-cultural musical idioms and literary texts. Not a bit of it. The texts are almost wholly drawn from words which have been set many hundreds of times before and have long lost any geographical roots – although the Nigerian homage which forms the third part of India – Australia – Africa was actually penned by a Scot who never seems to have ventured far from his Aberdeenshire home. As for the musical language, it is for the most part firmly rooted in a late 19th century idiom, wholly redolent of Victorian England – indeed, you could possible fool some people into thinking that her Missa Brevis is a long lost work of one of the Wesley family. Only with the setting of Shakespeare’s “When icicles hang by the wall” do we experience a taste of something a shade more musically exotic, while India – Australia – Africa dips its toe into the cooling streams of hotel-foyer jazz. For all its preference for musical comfort over adventure and experimentation, Thwaites’ is a charming and confident musical voice, and there is no doubting the very real sincerity underlying all her music here. It is this latter quality which shines through this disc, thanks to the exceptional work of Ex Cathedra and their founding director, Jeffrey Skidmore, who produce impeccably tended performances all of which sets each song as a real musical gem.

The overall title of this disc leads something of a false trail. Nominally, the only obvious move away from the English vocal/choral tradition is in a set of three choral songs with the collective title India – Australia – Africa and in which the choir is bolstered by some colourful instrumental support, including (representing India) a saxophone, a trumpet and bongos (exuding more the colours of the West Indies), a soft-core jazz combo for Australia, and a low bassoon and pounding drums for Africa. Once again, however, while one might search in vain for musical or other cultural associations with the named places in these songs, they are elevated and given real distinction by the superlative singing both of Ex Cathedra and the excellent team of soloists (Carolyn Sampson a delectably laid-back hiker through the Aussie outback, James Gilchrist an awe-struck observer of the African landscape).

Thwaites is, naturally, an eloquent performer of her own work, and her accompaniment to William Dazeley as he extols the picture-postcard icons of Scotland in the first of the three Love Songs (do I detect more than a hint of Grainger in this folk-like melody, and its lavish piano accompaniment?). The second of the Love Songs finds Carolyn Sampson with exquisite diction giving some alternatives to the famous gifts from the true love over the 12 days of Christmas and, again, Thwaites providing an exquisitely woven accompaniment, that ebbs and flows with perfect symmetry. The third Love Song, with the somewhat elusive love-themed title of “Forestry”, finds James Gilchrist remembering his love in their shared passion for trees. This is a beautifully discrete and expressive song, setting a text by Penelope Thwaites’ late poet-father, Michael; and the affection she feels for his memory is perfectly captured in this exquisite performance.

The Five Shakespeare Songs for chorus with piano accompaniment, set texts which will be familiar to all song-lovers; “Under the Greenwood Tree”, “Fear no more the heat o’the sun”, “When icicles hang by the wall”, “O Mistress Mine” and “It was a lover and his lass”. Yet, Thwaites is very much following her own musical inclinations in these neat and perfectly-formed miniature settings, and the combination of immediately attractive melodies (I am particularly taken by the alluring way she sets the words “Come hither” from the first of these), direct and unpretentious harmonies, the delicious flexibility and lightness of touch from Ex cathedra and the immaculately dovetailed piano accompaniments from Thwaites herself make these really worthy additions to the long tradition of Shakespeare verse settings.

Marc Rochester

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