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Songs for Sir John: A Tribute to Sir John Manduell
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano)
John Turner (recorder); Richard Simpson (oboe); Benedict Holland (violin); Susie Mészáros (viola); Nicholas Trygstad (cello); Laura Robinson (recorder); Richard Baker (narrator), Keith Swallow (piano)
rec. 2005/19, The King’s School, Macclesfield; St. Paul’s Church, Heaton Moor, Stockport, UK
DIVINE ART DDA25210 [72:52]

This imaginative and inspiring new album from Divine Art has all the hallmarks of ‘Manchester Impresario’ John Turner in its concept, ethos, and stunning performance. The idea is to present a tribute to the late Sir John Manduell with a diverse set of 16 works from 16 composers of different generations. Interestingly, many hail from the North Country, by birth or inclination. A thread of continuity is provided by W.B. Yeats, who provides the texts and inspiration for several these pieces. Not only are there numerous settings of songs, but also some works for chamber ensemble. All feature the recorder; most include the oboe, violin, and cello.

A few notes about Sir John Manduell may be of interest to those who have not yet come across his achievement. He was born in Johannesburg in 1928; however, his family returned to the United Kingdom some ten years later. Manduell read Modern Languages at Jesus College Cambridge. He won a Performing Rights Society Scholarship for post-graduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music: his composition tutors at this time were William Alwyn and Lennox Berkeley. Manduell’s career was to embrace a wide variety of musical activities, which must necessarily have limited the amount of time spent on composing. Amongst his many appointments were: BBC producer in London, the Head of Music for the Midlands and East Anglia (BBC), the first Director of Music at the University of Lancaster and, in 1971, the first principal of the RNCM. He remained in that post until 1996. Other important offices included the first chairman of the European Opera Centre, programme director of the Cheltenham Festival for 25 years and service on the British Arts Council. From a compositional point of view, Manduell’s catalogue is tantalisingly small. He wrote in several genres, including chamber works and song. He died in October 2017.

Readers will be delighted that I am not going to discuss all sixteen contributions in order. I want to select what was, for me, highlights of this album. That said, an omission of any work from my review does not imply my displeasure or indifference to it.

I enjoyed the ‘miniature’ instrumental ‘tone poems.’ First is Sally Beamish’s Yeats Interlude, for recorder, oboe, violin, and cello. This piece was inspired by the great poem ‘Wild Swans at Coole’. She has transferred the ‘inflections’ of the spoken text to instrumental colour. It is successful and truly captures the mood of Yeats’s words, reflecting a search for lasting beauty in a fast-changing world. I am not quite sure what ‘Zuzu’s Petals’ have to do with Yeats. This rather abstract piece by Kevin Malone is again scored for recorder, oboe, violin, and cello. It is haunting music that reflects Frank Capra’s evocative film A Wonderful Life. Despite the initially introverted nature of this music, there is a fundamental optimism that shines through as it progresses. The ‘Three Duets’ for two recorders by Lennox Berkeley was one of several works that he wrote for these instruments. The present collection includes two recently rediscovered pieces and a ‘Minuet’ which dates from 1924. The opening ‘moderato ‘was composed around 1938 and the final ‘allegro’ was completed in 1955. The work was edited by Michael Berkeley with ‘the expert guidance of John Turner.’ It is a charming addition to both the recorder repertoire and Lennox Berkeley’s catalogue.

If we turn to the songs, Lesley-Jane Rogers contributes many delightful performances, none more so than in Geoffrey Poole’s ‘Reflection’ and Peter Dickinson’s ‘String in Earth and Air.’ The latter dates from 1955 when Dickinson was Organ Scholar at Queen’s College, Cambridge. It was originally for voice and piano. Irish Lit. fans will know that the poem set is by James Joyce and not Yeats. Geoffrey Poole’s ‘The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water’ (from Yeats’s In the Seven Woods) is an innovative setting of this melancholy poem where the poet divines his future in the water’s past. Another enchanting number is Nicolas Marshall’s ‘Into the Twilight’. The composer writes that this ‘is a valedictory poem in which Yeats compares age and the toils of life (‘out-worn heart in a time out-worn’) to the rejuvenating beauty of nature. Both words and music fuse here to perfection. I enjoyed David Horne’s ‘Those Images’, for soprano, recorder, oboe, violin and cello; it is a clever balance of a sometimes declamatory, often lyrical, vocal line with some innovative instrumental commentary.

For me, the highlight of this CD is the Four Nursery Rhymes composed by Robin Walker. The texts of ‘The Shipwrecked Sailor’, ‘Lilly Pickle’, ‘Staring Moon’, and ‘Cat and Mouse’ were taken from the book of verse Johnny Robins by Mancunian polymath and composer Thomas Pitfield. The present pieces are set for narrator, recorder, and piano. Walker has created a magical score, with lots of melodic word-painting, but the marvellous thing here is the performance. The narrator is the late, great, Old School newsreader, broadcaster, and musical aficionado Richard Baker. I need say no more.

The liner notes are exceptional. Details of each work are written by several hands, typically by the individual composers. The texts for all the songs and narrations are provided. Handily, they are placed in order in each separate programme note. There are tributes to Sir John provided by Michael Berkeley, Bryan Fox, Lesley-Jane Rogers, and John Turner. Performer résumés are included as well as a photograph of each.

This is an album to savour. Do not rush through the entire recital. Try to take a few tracks or a single work at a time. There is nothing here that is overtly challenging, but much that is beautiful, with each piece demanding our full attention.
John France

Robin STEVENS (b.1958) 'Men improve with the Years' [2:32]
Elis PEHKONEN (b.1942) 'Sonnet' [5:46]
Martin BUSSEY (b.1958) 'The Cold Heaven' [4:00]
Geoffrey POOLE (b.1949) 'Reflection' [5:41]
Sally BEAMISH (b.1956) Yeats Interlude (for recorder, oboe, violin, and cello) [7:26]
Michael BALL (b.1946) 'Be Still' [3:49]
David HORNE (b.1970) 'Those Images' [6:09]
David MATTHEWS (b.1943) Two Yeats Songs, op.23b 1. ‘Lullaby’ [3:28] 2. ‘Sweet Dancer’ [1:35]
Kevin MALONE (b.1958) 'Zuzu’s Petals' (for recorder, oboe, violin, and cello) [5:21]
Gary CARPENTER (b.1951) 'This Great Purple Butterfly' [4:36]
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934) ‘Strings in the Earth and Air’ [1:40]
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989) Three Duets for two recorders 1. Moderato [1:37]; 2. Minuet [1:52]; 3. Allegro [1:36]
Robin WALKER (b.1953) Four Nursery Rhymes to texts by Thomas Pitfield (1903 - 1999) 1. ‘The Shipwrecked Sailor’ [1:03]; 2. ‘Lilly Pickle’ [0:41] 3. ‘Staring Moon’ [1:09]; 4. ‘Cat and Mouse’ [0:58]
Jeremy PIKE (b.1955) 'The Cat and the Moon' [4:28]
Nicholas MARSHALL (b.1942) 'Into the Twilight' [3:15]
Naji HAKIM (b.1955) ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ [3:48]

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