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WILL TODD The Burning Road a BENJAMIN BRITTEN The Company of Heaven a Graeme Danby (baritone) Jennifer Maybee (soprano); b Charlotte Kinder (soprano) Harry Nicholl (tenor) Fiona Shaw (speaker) Jonathan Pryce (speaker) Crouch End Festival Chorus National Sinfonia/David Temple  2 CDs: Todd [34:04]; Britten [47:27] SILVA SCREEN RECORDS SILKD 6021[82.00]
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WILL TODD The Burning Road (1996) 34.35

Graeme Danby (baritone) Jennifer Maybee (soprano)

BENJAMIN BRITTEN The Company of Heaven (1937) 47.27

Charlotte Kinder (soprano) Harry Nicholl (tenor) Fiona Shaw (speaker) Jonathan Pryce (speaker) Crouch End Festival Chorus National Sinfonia/David Temple

Silva are best known in the field of film music. From time to time however they strike out in different directions. Among the previous examples is an extremely impressive disc (SILKD6011) which features the Gerald Schurman Cello Concerto with the Rózsa Concerto. The present disc is one of their rare classical forays.

These two disparate works are linked by the turbulent 1930s. The Todd work commemorates the Jarrow March of 1936. The Company of Heaven was written by Britten in 1936-37 in the wake of his notorious but devastatingly effective Our Hunting Fathers. Britten's radical politics (of that era) provide another linkage.

Neither disc is well filled from the point of view of sheer duration however the quality and interest of the music and its execution is high.

Full texts and notes are provided and a photo of Anthony Gormley's Angel of the North embellishes the insert cover.

WILL TODD's name first came to my attention in a review by Lewis Foreman in the December 1996 issue of the British Music Society newsletter. Lewis was reviewing a concert held in the Victoria Rooms, Bristol in October 1996. The concert included Todd's orchestral suite from his full-length opera Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The opera on the life of the great Victorian engineer had its premiere in the Colston Hall Bristol in 1993 while the composer was working to his M.Mus. Lewis mentioned:-

"a most effective 15 minute suite which played continuously. This is accessible music, quite striking in its assurance and dramatic handling of the orchestra. The sombre opening was a case in point: we were told that opera and suite begin identically as over a pedal E an expressive melody unfolds. Later follows the music in which Brunel's lady love, Ellen Hulme, sings of her hopes for a fulfilled life with Brunel, though the opera will tell how this proves to be illusory. The popular idiom, with echoes of Bernstein or Copland, used for the scherzando middle section of the suite contrasted with the more sombre closing movements, "Death" and "Judgement". In the composer's words 'The suite and the opera end differently. The opera takes us forward to a time when Brunel's achievements as a great and visionary civil engineer are divorced from the pain caused in their making. In the suite, however, a sense of struggle remains paramount. The mechanistic textures return, bringing the work to an emphatic close.'

Todd's lyrical and serious language is fully in evidence in The Burning Road. This is only secondarily a political and nostalgic document. First and foremost it is a work of smoking sincerity and bitter heroic determination. A protest work but one that never loses touch with musical values. Instead this big orchestral piece consistently touches off emotional responses in the listener. The influence game may be useful to provide a reference for those (most readers) who nothing of Todd. For me the predominantly familiar voice is that of William Mathias (This Worlde's Joie and Lux Aeterna) but there are dashes of Walton and even the grander ecstatic Delius of Mass of Life and Song of the High Hills. The swinging power of The Song of the March (3rd movement) is but one of many memorable moments in this choral work. Watch out for Todd's name in future. I now very much want to hear his saxophone and violin concertos. The full Brunel opera was given in Bristol's Colston Hall in July 1993 and the librettist for that opera also provided the text for The Burning Road. I wonder if anyone has the Brunel opera on tape?

BRITTEN is the bigger name of course. The Company of Heaven is complete on the second disc. This is not a recording premiere having been done by Virgin and Philip Brunelle's Plymouth Music Series some years ago.

This Silva recording is placed in a nicely sonorous ambience (Henry Wood Hall 18 July 1998). The work has considerable tracts of narration as befits a BBC radio feature of the 1930s. The presence of Jonathan Pryce and Fiona Shaw (the latter the wonderful orator in The Children of Lir by Robert Lamb - Marco Polo 8.554407) certainly adds lustre to the production.

The music is life-enhancing written long before stultifying influences made his music an area of famine and arid negation. Listen to the wondering cantilena at 2.37 in Chaos. The orators' voices seem quite close but, then, this is a radio experience. The Morning Stars delivers massive choral sound. Ms Shaw's burred Irish tones are a relief from the prissily correct English of the original broadcast. The magical singing of the name 'Elisha' in track 7 is memorable. Christ the fair glory is music on which true inspiration has settled. The 'breath' of the orchestra comes haltingly and over it, shudderingly moving, comes the song of the angels. This is not all that removed from choral Finzi: such wondering tenderness!

In Light shall triumph the war drums foreshadow the War Requiem of twenty years after with the howl of ancestral voices prophesying war. War in Heaven reeks of Dies Irae with irregular surging, yawing and pitching. Note the great string sigh in track 13. In Part 3 Pryce is rather matter of fact but this turns out to be a well-judged decision. Charlotte Kinder is not in happiest voice in the Heaven is Here [14] as the wobble in her voice testifies. Harry Nicholl's tenor is similar to that of Pears in the Serenade - delicate in its spindrift wispiness. An updated 'Midsummer Night's Dream'. The funeral march for a boy [18] is a smouldering affair that looks to Mahlerian hills for its comfort and help. Track 22 breathes a clarion air with new worlds to inherit. While there are no trumpets in the score the string orchestra fanfares have the accent of trumpets and yet a delightful legato effect which only the strings can achieve. The overflowing wondrous magic of Ye Watchers And Ye Holy Ones provides a bell-like carillon - a glorious paean to the heavens.

There is considerable magic in this disc and I recommend it at 2-for-1 price with enthusiasm.


Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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