BBC Music Magazine
Desenclos • Poulenc
Poulenc: Stabat Mater
Marion Tassou (soprano),
François Saint-yves (organ);
Flemish Radio Choir, Brussels Philharmonic/hervé Niquet
Evil Penguin EPRC 0032 60:08 mins
Two assuaging works about death and life. The Flemish Radio Choir and Hervé Niquet have been exploring Requiems, and this pairing make an intriguing final instalment. Written in the late 1950s and first heard in 1963, Alfred Desenclos’s Messe de Requiem has only started to be taken up by choirs in the last decade or so. This performance exudes a liturgical sensibility, the subtle registrations of organist François Saint-yves enabling the choir to evoke an incense-laden atmosphere. It is a pity, though, that, with the Brussels Philharmonic on hand, the opportunity was not taken to record the rarely heard orchestral version.
Like Fauré, Desenclos omits the Dies Irae text so there is more resting in peace than fire and brimstone. In addition to Fauré, Desenclos’s music incorporates touches of Lili Boulanger’s psalm settings and the second half of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. That’s certainly no bad thing, and the Requiem is well-crafted. Nonetheless, Desenclos’s pleasant meanderings do not match his forebears’ distinctiveness, an impression not helped by his Requiem having to follow Poulenc’s Stabat Mater.
Written after the death of his friend Christian Bérard, Poulenc’s ‘Requiem without despair’ is closer in spirit to the confessional intimacy of the opera Dialogue des Carmelites than the exuberance of his later Gloria.
With assured support from the Brussels Philharmonic, Niquet has a strong grasp of the space needed around the choir’s utterances, so that all is clear even when they are not entirely secure. Despite the periodically woolly acoustic, Poulenc’s essence shines through. Christopher Dingle
Julia Kleiter (soprano), Gerhild Romberger (mezzo-soprano), Dmitry Korchak (tenor), Tareq Nazmi (bass), Julius Drake (piano); Bavarian Radio Choir/howard Arman
BR Klassik 900526 58:53 mins
Dvo ák’s gentle, devout Stabat Mater is established in the choral repertoire as an evening-long work in ten movements accompanied by full orchestra. But it was first written in only seven movements with piano accompaniment; now it’s claimed that this version wasn’t just a sketch, as it’s usually been described, but intended for performance. It’s hard to believe that some of the piano part – the bare octaves at the start, the loud tremolo diminished-seventh chords, the passages of intensive development of a single theme – was not written with orchestration in mind. But the compactness of the first version, in terms of length and scoring, certainly makes it an attractive proposition for choirs.
Howard Arman’s Bavarian
Radio Chorus does it proud with precise tuning, well-blended tone and thrilling climaxes. There’s a good solo quartet, with especially well-matched soprano and alto, a somewhat Italianate tenor and a resonant bass. Julius Drake, experienced accompanist that he is, makes the piano part sound idiomatic. The live recording occasionally places single choral lines at too great a distance, but generally presents a convincing sound-picture. Anthony Burton PERFORMANCE ★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★
Lamentations: Maundy Thursday ‘In Coena Domini’; Good Friday ‘In Parasceve’; Holy Saturday (Lesson 3, 6vv) Cinquecento
Hyperion CDA 68284 72:11 mins
The prophet Jeremiah’s lamentations were traditionally sung during the last days of Holy Week as part of the sombre, candlelit service of Tenebrae. Palestrina produced at least four settings, the second of which is recorded here. Befitting the text, it’s music of unrelenting intensity: slow, meditative and solemn, with few rays of light illuminating the dark harmonic canvas.
Cinquecento specialises in performing music from the 1500s and, with members from Austria, Belgium, England, Germany and Switzerland, models itself after an imperial chapel choir whose singers were drawn from the finest choral establishments across Europe. Using one voice to a part (as was common practice in 16th-century Rome), the ensemble is lucid and detailed: individual lines are sharply drawn yet the overall effect is richly sonorous. An ensemble of adult male singers (rather than female voices or boys on the upper parts) throws the weight on the dusky colours of Palestrina’s palette and also lends a robustly virile quality to the sound.
The second book of Lamentations has been surprisingly overlooked on commercial recording; one of the few other recordings currently available is the classic account by Pro Cantione Antiqua – plangent and deeply moving, though the singers’ slight vibrato and the washy acoustic will not appeal to all tastes. Cinquecento’s reading is rather more subtly nuanced and their unwavering vocal production is cleaner and more incisive.
Kate Bolton-porciatti PERFORMANCE ★★★★★
Devotion – Sacred and Secular Songs: The Blessed Virgin’s Expostulation; O solitude, etc Julia Doyle (soprano);
Deux-elles DXL 1183 62:42 mins
This is Julia Doyle’s first solo disc and the debut album of Ensemble Unmeasured, which consists of Doyle and three instrumentalists. Its programme probes Henry Purcell’s genius for expressing obsession through song and requires poet-performers, which these artists surely are.
Purcell’s scores encode poetic recitation – in the joining and separation of phrases, in the particular sonic qualities of words, in the insertion of a silence or the drawling of a syllable – and Ensemble Unmeasured turn such hints into powerful gestures. It’s the subtlety of their swells, dynamics, colours and ornaments that give the musicians’ gestures strength. Doyle has a prodigious instinct for scansion and applies this artfully, for instance by varying motifs or accelerating or decelerating scales. She often dials down vibrato to decorate notes with a ‘shake’, and her strategised straight tone gives her voice a freshness rare among today’s sopranos. The band’s gossamer-light realisations throw such moves into relief, pulling us into each song’s inner journey.
But why all songs, and why all Purcell? Ensemble members Matthew Wadsworth (lute), Kate Bennett Wadsworth (gamba/cello) and Chistopher Bucknall (keyboard) are all stars whom I’d love to hear cut loose from continuo parts. I salute Ensemble Unmeasured for this dazzling debut and hope it will soon tackle lesser-known works by such fine contemporaries as John Blow, Pelham Humfrey, Matthew Locke and Nicholas Lanier. Berta Joncus PERFORMANCE ★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★★
Man and Bat; Piano Concerto; The Moon is Flashing;
Roderick Williams (baritone), James Gilchrist (tenor), Tim Horton (piano); Ensemble 360
First Hand Records FHR90 70:25 mins The sleeve notes to this collection of recent works by Howard Skempton refer to his ‘musical language of great simplicity’.
Such descriptions are commonly associated with Skempton’s output but can be misleading; works such as Man and Bat, the opening track to this album, are as complex as they are accessible. DH Lawrence’s epic poem about one man’s struggle with ‘a bat, big as a swallow’ is performed by Ensemble 360 and baritone Roderick Williams, for whom the work was commissioned. Williams, a fine composer himself, has proved adept at contemporary song, and finds pathos in this extended vocal work. The ‘round and round and round’ refrain is a neatly wrought anchor, while the surprise ending is highly effective.
In 2015, Skempton featured at Kings Place’s ongoing ‘unwrapped’ series as part of the minimalism strand. Like his colleagues Nico Muhly and Gavin Bryars, who were also included, Skempton doesn’t really fit into the Glass/reich category. The piano concerto is one of the closest ‘minimalist’ works, performed here in a 2018 version for piano and string quartet. The solo part remains unchanged; its almost spectral use of colour and space in the early movements works well for the refreshed medium.
Tenor James Gilchrist, who gave the premiere performance of The Moon is Flashing at the 2007 Vale of Glamorgan Festival, reprises the solo role again for this disc, this time joined by members of Ensemble 360. Instrumental work Eternity’s Sunrise closes the programme, concluding a recital recording to savour. Claire Jackson PERFORMANCE ★★★★★
A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols
– The Centenary Service
Works by Poston, Howells, Tavener, John Rutter, Arvo Pärt, Judith Weir et al
Guy Johnston (cello); Choir of
King’s College, Cambridge/stephen Cleobury; Henry Websdale (organ) King’s College KGS 0036 (hybrid CD/ SACD) 76:44 mins
This is a record not only of the 2018 centenary service of King’s’s legendary Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, but also of the last to be directed by Stephen Cleobury before his retirement. For over 35 years he sustained and burnished a tradition which – like a well-loved stretch of rural river – has not so much evolved as regenerated over the years. In ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ Cleobury’s final verse descant may be unfamiliar, yet its flowing and distinctly Elgarian style appears a fresh yet sympathetic addition to that familiar opening processional.
One senses throughout a judicious maintenance of familiar pillars – such as Ord’s ‘Adam lay ybounden’ (Cleobury ensuring when the tenors take up the melody that they are never overwhelmed by the other voices) – balanced with new elements such as the annual commissioned carol
(Judith Weir’s attractive ‘O mercy divine’ imaginatively involving a solo cello, played by former King’s chorister Guy Johnston), and repertoire ranging from Medieval to composers from other traditions such as Arvo Pärt.
Although one may wish some of the choral scholar soloists had more developed voices, the choir is generally in superb form, disciplined yet clearly relishing the music (the boys give a good shout for the end of Matthias’s ‘Sir Christèmas’!). Be warned: the CD layer – as opposed to the SACD layer – omits two relatively minor tracks, available for download with a supplied code. Superbly engineered, the recording vividly conjures the chapel’s unique acoustic. Daniel Jaffé PERFORMANCE ★★★★
Works by Peñalosa, Escobar and Guerrero
New York Polyphony
BIS BIS-2407 (hybrid CD/SACD) 56:41 mins
The four singers of the New York Polyphony ensemble are established and accomplished performers primarily of Renaissance music, although they do venture into other fields as well. Here they offer a selection of 16th-century Spanish composers, all of whom also spent some time in Italy.
The earliest is Francesco de Peñalosa (d.1528) whose exceptional singing voice was praised by Pope Leo X. His compositions by contrast tend to be of the ‘serviceable’ kind with little harmonic or textural ingenuity. That said, the performers conjure out of his ‘Unica est columba mea’ a truly affecting and serene uniformity of tone and tuning, and in ‘Sancta Maria succure’ they present the humble petition of the text with steady assurance. They also provide a revelatory (first?) recording of extracts from Peñalosa’s Missa L’homme armé, but given that the disc is only 56 minutes long, it seems odd that the Kyrie and Sanctus are missing, despite being described in some detail in the liner notes. The works by Escobar (died after 1535) and Guerrero (d.1599) take the art of composition up a notch. The former’s Stabat Mater is performed
with an odd kind of forcefulness, and the slightly blurred inner voices have to be rescued by some secure bass singing. In Guerrero’s spiritual madrigal ‘Antes que comáis’ we get a refreshing glimpse of the group’s dramatic skills, and the intricate textures of his ‘Quae est ista’ are very nicely displayed. Anthony Pryer PERFORMANCE ★★★★ RECORDING ★★★★
Works by Howells, Leighton, Stanford, Sumsion, Tippett & Gabriel Jackson
Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge/ Andrew Nethsingha;
Glen Dempsey (organ)
Signum Classics SIGCD 588 58:44 mins For those who collect recordings of the Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, the two canticles central to the Anglican evensong service, this recording may jog memories of the 21-disc series released by Priory Records, which had over
200 settings in total. There are six in this first volume of a new
‘Mag & Nunc’ series by The Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. A second release is planned, with the possibility of more ‘if listeners are enthusiastic’, as the choir’s director Andrew Nethsingha puts it.
The disc opens with an outstanding performance of Stanford’s Service in A. Its range of interpretive insights – from the ethereal entries in the Nunc Dimittis to the full-voiced splendour of both Glorias – is exceptional and articulated with enthralling confidence by the St John’s singers. The intricate rhythmic detail of the Magnificat in Leighton’s Second Service is etched with impressive exactitude in all four voice parts, and there is a particularly luminescent contribution from the boy trebles at the beginning of Howells’s Gloucester Service.
In Gabriel Jackson’s Truro Service, the alternation of homophonic and harmonised sections creates a suggestive intermingling of ancient and modern sensibilities. The best is reserved for last – a gripping account of Tippett’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis, complete with rasping interjections from the famous Trompeta Real stop on the St John’s College organ. Andrew Nethsingha’s exemplary booklet notes cap a warmly recommendable issue. Terry Blain
Time and Space
Songs by Holst and
Mary Bevan (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Jack Liebeck (violin), William Vann (piano)
Albion Records ALBCD 038 76:15 mins The title, Time and Space, is taken from Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Darest Thou Now O Soul’, which Holst and Vaughan Williams set in friendly competition in 1904-05. The resulting works (VW’S quite different from his familiar choral version) make their disc debut here – VW’S noble and relatively restrained, Holst’s more dramatic and questing – in committed performances by Roderick Williams and pianist William Vann.
These artists also give winning advocacy of Holst’s ‘Invocation of the Dawn’ – another first recording – which opens this selection,
Vann handling its Wagnerian and increasingly overloaded piano part with tactful aplomb. (Holst later reworked this fine song, creating a more discreet accompaniment, in Vedic Hymns, Op. 24.)
Through several songs, many new to disc, we hear Vaughan Williams finding his ‘voice’ relatively early, while Holst boldly explored different styles, from the charming Grieg-inspired songs of Op. 4 (1896-98), through touchingly earnest Wagnerian settings (Op. 15 songs and ‘Darest Thou’), to the spare, quasi-medieval style of the relatively familiar violin songs of 1916-17. In the latter Mary Bevan gives a fine account, superbly partnered by Jack Liebeck. Even more striking is their performance of Vaughan Williams’s by turns astringent and playful AE Housman settings Along the Field (1925/27).
With several contrasting lullaby settings, including a pair on the same text by William Blake (both sung by Bevan, Vaughan Williams’s simple yet hauntingly beautiful) and some telling folksong arrangements, this is altogether a fascinating and lovely programme. Daniel Jaffé