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Leaves fall REGCD563
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As the leaves fall
Harold Darke (1888-1976)
As the leaves fall, Op 26 (1917)
The Kingdom of God, Op 31 (1921)
Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986)
Requiem, Op 9 (1947)
Hannah Dienes-Williams (soprano); Jane Shell (mezzo-soprano)
Richard Moore (organ)
Chameleon Arts Orchestra
Guildford Cathedral Choir/Katherine Dienes-Williams
rec. 2019, Guildford Cathedral
Texts included

To Harold Darke belongs the distinction that he composed one of the best-loved and widely-known twentieth-century Christmas carols: his 1909 setting of Christina Rosetti’s poem, In the Bleak Midwinter. But what other pieces of his are known to music-lovers? Those who regularly attend the service of Choral Evensong will probably be familiar with Darke in F, but that may be about it. To be fair, his compositional output was fairly slender. In large part, that was because in his career he focused so much on making music, rather than composing it. As Richard Moore, the Sub-Organist of Guildford Cathedral, reminds us in his exemplary booklet essay, Darke served as organist of the church of St Michael, Cornhill, London for an astonishingly long period (1916-1966). I believe his time there was broken only by the relatively short period from 1941 when he deputised at King’s College, Cambridge while Boris Ord was on war service. While Darke was at St Michael’s he established the series of lunchtime organ recitals at the church, which continues to this day, giving some 1800 of them himself. No wonder he had relatively little time to compose. It’s welcome, therefore, that Katherine Dienes-Williams, the Organist and Master of the Choristers of Guildford Cathedral, has chosen to record two short secular cantatas by Darke: surely these must be premiere recordings?

The Guildford Cathedral Choir was established when the Cathedral was consecrated in 1961. Like several other English cathedrals nowadays, it has both boy and girl choristers; it’s the girls who sing the top line on this CD. They’re joined by the adult lay clerks: four altos, three tenors and five basses. I wonder if the tenor section was depleted on this occasion, perhaps due to illness; the tenors sing well but there were occasions in the Duruflé, a work with which I’m very familiar, when the line wasn’t sufficiently audible, I felt. Though I’d hate to see the end of the tradition of all-male church choirs, I unreservedly welcome the fact that girl choristers have been integrated into so many cathedral choirs in recent years: the Guildford Girl Choristers show on this disc just how much well-trained young female singers can contribute to such a choir.

As the leaves fall was composed in 1917, originally for upper voices, including a prominent solo soprano role. In 1934 Darke reworked the piece for SATB choir, which is what we hear on this disc. The work uses only a small orchestra comprising flute, oboe, clarinet, harp and strings. The text is a poem by Joseph Courtney (1891-1973). Courtney was one of the World War I soldier poets and, indeed, his poem was published in 1916 in a collection entitled Soldier Poets: Songs of the fighting men. In his excellent description of the music, Richard Moore points to the influences of S. S. Wesley, Parry and Brahms. I wouldn’t disagree. However, I also detect echoes of Elgar’s ‘For the Fallen’, from The Spirit of England. That was composed in 1915: could Darke have known it? I hear this echo in the melancholy melody – and its harmonisation – whenever the theme associated with the words ‘As the leaves fall’ occurs. An air of nostalgic melancholy often pervades the music but there are impassioned episodes also. The Guildford Cathedral Choir sings the music with great commitment and they’re well supported by the members of the Chameleon Arts Orchestra. The important soprano role is taken by Hannah Dienes-Williams who, at the time of this recording, was a member of the choir; she is now a Choral Scholar at Clare College, Cambridge. Even if one did not know her background, hers is evidently a young voice, which will grow more, I’m sure. She’s a very accomplished singer, offering pure, clear and accurate singing. The top of the voice is very well produced – as it needs to be in some parts of the work – but I was also pleasantly surprised by the strength and warmth of her low register. Ideally, though, I think the work’s big climax (‘There is no death’) needs a bigger voice. Overall, though, hers is an auspicious performance. Darke’s response to Courtney’s text is sincere and effective and I’m glad the piece has been recorded.

The Kingdom of God sets a poem by Francis Thompson (1859-1907). Richard Moore points out that this poet experienced homelessness and opiate addiction in Victorian London. He also had a strong, mystical Christian faith which led him to convert to Roman Catholicism. This heady brew of experiences is reflected in this poem which, in Moore’s words, gives the reader “the spiritual world…incarnate in a temporal reality”. Darke wrote his setting for the same vocal forces as he used in As the leaves fall but the orchestra is significantly expanded. Once again, Hannah Dienes-Williams is a convincing soprano soloist – I particularly like her touching delivery at ‘But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)’. The choir also sings well but in the resonant cathedral acoustic Darke’s orchestration is rather too thick at times and the textures aren’t sufficiently clear. It’s a skilfully written piece and I was glad of the chance to hear it. If it didn’t make as strong an impression on me as did As the leaves fall, I suspect that’s because, subjectively, the poem doesn’t really appeal to me.

It was a good idea to pair Darke’s pieces with Maurice Duruflé’s serene Requiem because the composers have things in common. Both composed relatively few pieces - Duruflé’s output was even more slender than Darke’s – and both spent extended periods as organist of the same church: in Duruflé’s case he was organiste titulaire at the church of St-Étienne-du-Mont in Paris from 1929 until his death. The Requiem exists in several versions. Originally, it was composed for choir and large orchestra. Subsequently, the composer made versions with accompaniment either by organ or by reduced orchestra with organ. I prefer those two later versions; it’s the organ and small orchestra version that we hear in this performance.

There’s much to enjoy here. Katherine Dienes-Williams paces the music very sympathetically. As is well-known, Duruflé based the work on plainchant and as a result the time signatures, which often change from bar to bar, are almost there for convenience; ideally, the bar lines should be almost redundant. Here, Katherine Dienes-Williams achieves just that degree of flow. In the beautiful ‘Pie Jesu’ I liked very much the clear, expressive singing of mezzo Jane Shell; Lorraine Deacon plays the important cello part very nicely. The choral singing is accomplished and the Girl Choristers deserve particular praise for the purity and clarity of their sound; that’s a consistent feature of this performance and nowhere more so than in the concluding ‘In Paradisum’ where the girls’ singing is poised and ethereal, which is just what this music needs.

My reservation about this account of the Duruflé concerns the balance. The choir’s top line, sung by the girls, is always clear, but that’s not always true of the three lower voice parts. Furthermore, at climaxes, such as the one in the ‘Kyrie’, or the ‘Dies irae’ section of the ‘Libera me’, the choir is somewhat overwhelmed by the orchestra. I found that even when listening through headphones. I hasten to say that I don’t blame the musicians for this; I think the acoustic is the problem, despite the best efforts of engineers Will Anderson and Ken Blair. I just wonder if it might have been better to use the organ-only version in this location, even though that would mean, for example, losing the rippling harp in the ‘Agnus Dei’.

That reservation aside, this CD shows the quality of the music-making at Guildford Cathedral and the programme proves that there’s a great deal more to Harold Darke as a composer than his delectable In the Bleak Midwinter.
John Quinn

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