GMCD 7213 – Flight of Song
The Choir of Queens’ College Cambridge, James Week – Director, Matthew Steynor – Organ
The Organ – August 2001
This disc features a superb collection of some of the finest contemporary music imaginable, matched by the excellent Queen’s College choir, which sings with style, elegance and absolute integrity. Matthew Steynor provides subtle and effective accompaniment on the 1892 J J Binns organ in the College Chapel – details of which are given in the booklet. It sounds rather distant in this recording, which seems more due to subdued registration than a badly placed microphone. Howard Skempton’s tuneful compositions open the disc, We who with songs, Opportunity, Rose-Berries and Song at the Year’s Turning all containing the same respect for the poetry on which they are based. The harmonic idiom is pleasingly modem, mild dissonance colouring the sound, whilst the rhythms are subtle but enjoyable. Skempton’s The Flight of Song is featured at the end of the CD, beginning with a “poetic collage” at the outset, little more than a babble of words and phrases which suddenly dissolves into subtle harmony.
Two works by Judith Weir show different sides of her compositional spirits, the 1995 Two Human Hymns being extremely lyrical, whilst the longer and earlier Ascending into Heaven, based upon Latin text by Hildebert de Lavardin, is more angular and rhythmical, voices soaring above mysterious rising motifs from the organ.
Jonathon Harvey’s The Tree – a mystical and pervading interpretation of three verses from the Book of Job – precedes Tippett’s rather more upbeat Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (Collegium Sancti Johannis Cantabriginiense).
Singing throughout is of the very highest standard, and under Weeks’s able direction the choir produce stunning performances of this new repertory which frankly deserves to be far better known than it is.
BBC Music Magazine June 2001 Page 81
Longfellow’s phrase -‘Flight of Song- evokes the everlasting power of song to inspire poets and musicians.
This programme of 20th-century pieces from James Weeks and the Choir of Queens’ College Cambridge ., neatly highlights the harmonious marriage of music and test for which English choral music has long been justly renowned.
The performance illustrate with impressive sensitivity the hypnotic allure (‘Opportunity’), crystalline luminescence (‘Rose-berries’) and curious timelessness (‘Song at the Year’s Turning’) of Skempton’s style. Elsewhere, the choir’s exemplary tonal and dynamic precission interacts dramatically with prominent organ parts in Weir’s evocative images of the celestial city (‘Ascending into Heaven’) and Harvey’s darkly mystical ‘Thou mastering me God’. An exuberant performance of Tippett’s Magnificat and Nunc dimitis confirms the consistent brilliance of the English Cathedral tradition.
Weeks and his team take wing most emphatically, though, in the final Skempton group. In The flight of Song the evolution from speech to singing in ‘The Arrow and the Song’, the static dissonances of ‘Becalmed’ and the dizzying minimalism of ‘Chimes’ resolve beautifully into the mesmeric swaying of ‘The Tide Rises, and the Tide Falls’. Skempton’s luscious eight-part setting of ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’ completes the enchanting concert.
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Howard Skempton has the lion’s share in this particularly enterprising release of fairly new choral music. Though sometimes considered an experimental composer, whatever this may mean, he is generally better known for his numerous short instrumental pieces cast in a fairly consonant idiom sometimes verging on minimalism. He also scored some success with his Lento for orchestra first performed during the Proms some years ago. He has written many instrumental miniatures for various instrumental combinations, including pieces for accordion, his own instrument.
Though he has also written some vocal music, he may not generally be associated with choral music. The present release offers a quite wide ranging survey of his choral output of which the most ambitious piece is Flight of Song of 1996. In the first movement Skempton somewhat looks back at his experimental years (the very beginning of this movement is some sort of collage sung almost at random), though the other movements and the other pieces are much in the same vein as his instrumental miniatures. However these short pieces are really well done, fairly simple, tuneful. To Bethlem did they go (1995) is a delightful carol that could become quite popular at Christmas time.
Judith Weir is a very distinguished composer with a considerable output in almost every genre and she has written a number of choral pieces. Her carol Illuminare, Jerusalem (1985) is fairly well-known and has already been recorded. Ascending into Heaven (1983) sets a long Latin text and, though played without break, falls into three vocally differentiated sections, the last of which ends softly high up in the air. Fine as it is, I find that the Two Human Hymns (1995) are much finer pieces. The first hymn sets Herbert’s Love, also set by Vaughan Williams in his Five Mystical Songs, whereas the second is a setting of Henry King’s sic Vita. Weir’s Two Human Hymns are, as far as I am concerned, one of the finest pieces in this collection.
Jonathan Harvey has written a good deal of choral music throughout his career. Some of his large-scale choral pieces, e.g. Forms of Emptiness and Lauds are already available on CD (ASV CD DCA 917). The present release has three shorter works of great beauty: Thou mastering me God (1989), God is our Refuge (1986) and the undated The Tree which are all fine examples of what Harvey may achieve with comparatively simple means.
Tippett’s Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis (1963) is better known though it may still not be as popular as it should. Tippett’s approach is quite personal and his setting is full of arresting ideas, such as the opening trumpet fanfare in the Magnificat, whereas the Nunc Dimittis is somewhat simpler, more straightforward.
This is a particularly enterprising release of unfamiliar choral music written over the last twenty years or so. All the works are immaculately, affectionately sung. Matthew Steynor’s playing is superb throughout. A most welcome release and I, for one, hope that similar collections will soon be recorded by the same forces.
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Guild is proving to be an increasingly enterprising and valuable label and we are here presented with an interesting collection of English choral music, recorded (with the exception of two short works by Skempton), in the beautiful acoustic of Queen’s College Chapel itself, whose resonances are ideally suited to this repertoire.
The composer best represented is Leamington Spa-based Howard Skempton. Skempton’s roots are in experimental music, being one of the founder members, along with the late Cornelius Cardew, of the Scratch Orchestra in the 1960’s. At the time he worked regularly with other composers such as John Tilbury, Hugh Shrapnel and John White although it is Skempton whose reputation has been the most lasting. His music is tonal and has a sincerity which goes far deeper than the apparent surface simplicity of the music itself. Anyone who is familiar with his haunting orchestral work Lento, which became something of a cult piece following its release on the NMC Label a few years ago, will recognise the language of these short choral works which span a period of around twenty years. The earliest piece, Song at the Year’s Turning, a setting of RS Thomas, is one of his most austere settings, impressive in its painting of the equally austere and wintry verse. What it shares with later settings (apart from Skempton’s characteristic abrupt endings, the music just seeming to stop mid sentence) is a great sensitivity to the verse, which is never allowed to become subservient to the music. There is contrast in abundance also. Compare the abstract use of spoken word, graphically notated and perhaps reminiscent of Berio, at the beginning of The Flight of Song, with the third movement of the same work, Chimes, which for me recalls the magical underwater tolling of bells in the first of Vaughan Williams’ Three Shakespeare Songs, against the almost naïve simplicity of Rose-Berries, a1990 setting of Mary Webb. Judging by these works alone, it would be good to hear more of Skempton’s prolific output committed to disc.
Judith Weir has enjoyed considerable critical acclaim in recent years and justifiably so. Her music, often economic in means but always with something significant and original to say, has been only reasonably represented on disc but particularly well represented in the concert hall. I first heard Ascending into Heaven some years ago in a BBC broadcast and recall being struck at the time by its ethereal beauty. Weir’s carol Illuminare, Jerusalem has become something of a contemporary classic and Ascending into Heaven, dating from two years earlier, inhabits a similarly haunting sound world. The prominent part for organ is extremely effective and James Weeks draws sensitive singing from the choir who are clearly very much at home with this music. The Two Human Hymns, Love bade me welcome and Like to the falling of a star, of twelve years later, are less ambitious and demonstrate a softening of Weir’s harmonic language. Nonetheless they are pleasurable settings, once again sung with feeling.
Many may know and consider Jonathan Harvey an avant-gardist, although he has produced a considerable quantity of choral and church music throughout his career which shows him in a very different light. The mystical element of his own faith often surfaces in his music, nowhere more evident than in his orchestral masterpiece, Madonna of Winter and Spring, recently released in a magnificent recording on Nimbus by the Netherlands Radio Symphony Orchestra under Peter Eötvös, essential listening for anyone wishing to explore his output. The three works featured here appear to date from the 1980’s although we are not given a date for The Tree. Harvey achieves a richness of sonority from the choir and organ which beautifully enhances these deeply felt settings, whose mysterious, sometimes melting, sometimes slightly harder edged harmonies leave a lasting impression. One can sense that Thou mastering me God and God is our Refuge came from the very soul of the composer.
The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis of Sir Michael Tippett, dating to 1963, is by far the best known work on the disc. This is vintage Tippett, the idiosyncratic melody at once recognisable in the opening organ flourish, the choir emphasising the often stark harmony particularly well. The moving Nunc Dimittis which follows is in complete contrast, a sustained choral background over which floats a solo soprano line sung with poignant tenderness.
This disc offers much to commend in both the choice of programme and sensitive performances given by the Choir of Queen’s College, who receive excellent support from the organist Matthew Steynor. Most of all it leaves a desire to further explore the music of the fine composers represented. There are useful programme notes provided by the choir’s director James Weeks, who at twenty two years of age, is a name I am sure we will hear more of in years to come.Christopher Thomas
***** Performance and sound