GMCD 7348 – Ancient Sorceries, Music for countertenor and recorder

Nicholas Clapton – countertenor, John Turner – recorder, Jonathan Price – cello, Ian Thompson – harpsichord

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American Records Guide January – February 2012

Here’s a bizarre concept: works by seven 20th- Century composers performed in early instrument style with a modern cello.

The performances of the works by Richard Steinitz, Arthur Butterworth, Stephen Hough, Nicholas Marshall, John Gardner, and John Joubert are all excruciating for the same reasons. The countertenor can’t sing in key, can’t nail a pitch when he has a wide leap, and has a vibrato that sounds like a painful wail. The recorder player seems to be using meantone temperament; he also blows coke-bottle style-just a pure blow with pitches that often sag at the end of phrases, except for a nervous little vibrato when he’s running out of breath. The harpsichordist, on the other hand, seems to use well-tempered tuning! Put the three of them together in the Steinitz, Butterworth, and Marshall, and the results are pure agony because they’re not in tune with one another.

Stephen Hough uses the countertenor, recorder player, and cellist in his three short songs. The cello does serve as a tonal anchor, but the other two players are still awful. The rest of the pieces use all four players (one of whom also plays bells for the McCabe).

Only the McCabe has full texts, both Latin and English; and his style, rather akin to Catholic Gregorian chant when it’s in quasirecitative mode, means that Clapton manages to stay pretty much on pitch because there are no wide-interval leaps for him to murder (but he sure does take a lot of breaths). This sevenminute work was the only one I could understand because, aside from the blowzy English translation of Steinitz’s Greek text (“Praise in song your brother Phoebus of the golden locks, who, high above the rock dwellings of twinpeaked Parnassus, betakes himself to the waters of limpid Kastalis, visiting at Delphi the prophetic crag”), there are no texts at all, not even a transliteration of the Greek.

Add Clapton’s wretched enunciations- he’s very poor with consonants, often even swallowing the letter T-and I couldn’t understand a bloody thing on this album. As Leslie Kandell says in a concert review in this issue, this suggests that the words don’t matter, or, even worse, that this album (conceived by Turner) isn’t too important. Cancel the words, and I found the music, with the exception of Hough and McCabe, excruciating.

Editor Don Vroon forbids writers from saying a recording is an “album of the year” until the year has ended. But he’s never forbidden the opposite. So I hereby nominate this recording as a candidate for the ugliest album you’ll read about in all of 2012.

MusicWeb International Wednesday July 14th 2010

Singing and playing of the highest order. This much-to-be-recommended disc of unusual but significant repertoire
The early music revival enabled the rediscovery of the counter-tenor voice and the recorder (much favoured by Henry Purcell). It also opened the door for contemporary composers to explore their own particular colours. ‘Ancient Sorceries’ is a disc presenting works composed between 1974 and 2007.
Three of the composers score for counter-tenor, recorder and harpsichord, but create very contrasting sonorities. Richard Steinitz’s Hymn to Apollo at Delphi features a dense and rhythmically complex harpsichord part. The counter-tenor line is wide ranging in tessitura and expression; a substantial and effective work. Walter de la Mare’s poetry creates almost its own mystical sound-world, which Arthur Butterworth has magically entered in Ancient Sorceries. ‘Voices’ and ‘Sorcery’ are quite dark, but ‘The Horn’ is lighter and captures the poem’s elfin intimations. Various aspects of nature are represented in six poems by Ted Hughes and expressed in music of subtle simplicity in Nicholas Marshall’s Cat and Mouse. The vocal lines, especially in the stark wintery imagery of ‘Snowdrop’ and the light-hearted twisting of the Garden of Eden story in ‘Theology’, are supported by creative scoring for the instruments.
Stephen Hough’s Three Grave Songs, composed in 2007, omit harpsichord in favour of cello. The mellower sound of tenor recorder is used in the settings of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Requiescat’ and Ernest Dowson’s ‘In a Breton Cemetery’, the latter made even darker by sustained cello double-stopping and the sadly lyrical vocal line. The cruel glibness of Thomas Hardy’s ‘By her Aunt’s Grave’ is expressed by the dancing sopranino recorder, and provides a contrast in mood in this moving cycle.
Both harpsichord and cello combine with counter-tenor and recorders of various sizes in John Gardner’s Six by Four; Six Lyrics from the plays of Shakespeare and John Joubert’s Crabbed Age and Youth, though both composers make use of reduced forces to great effect in a number of songs. In Gardner’s cycle recorder and harpsichord lightly accompany the contoured melody of ‘Over Hill, over Dale’. ‘Come Away, come away, Death’, unfolds over almost Bachian harpsichord textures, sustained by the cello. There are hints of an Elizabethan flavour here and there, but deliciously jazzy syncopations dispel any suggestion of pastiche. Scoring is reduced even further in Joubert’s skilfully crafted cycle. ‘Let us not that Young Men be’ is an energetic duo for voice and sopranino recorder. ‘Crabbed Age and Youth’ is accompanied by harpsichord alone with representational figuration, while ‘Though you are Young and I am old’ is a melancholy dialogue between voice and cello. Full instrumental forces are restored for ‘Time wasteth Years’, its lively melody underpinned by a swinging accompaniment.
John McCabe’s Two Latin Elegies set Catullus’s elegy at his brother’s grave and the anonymous Compline hymn Te lucis ante terminum. Two melodic phrases from a Pavan in William Byrd’s My Lady Nevell’s Book provide a basis for much of the thematic material. Bells add their distinctive timbre to the counter-tenor, recorder, harpsichord and cello scoring. The atmosphere throughout this calm and chant-like work is subdued and devotional.
Singing and playing are of the highest order. A wide range of musical expression is very convincingly sustained on this much-to-be-recommended disc of unusual but significant repertoire.
Andrew Mayes