WILL TODD The Burning Road
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
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  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  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