Thursday, 12 December 2013

CD Reviews - December 2013

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) was born in Dublin, but was one of the founding professors of the Royal College of Music in London at the age of 29.  However, his music has perhaps always been overshadowed by the success of his pupils, such as Holst and Vaughan Williams.  He left us with a considerable body of music, including seven symphonies, but it is perhaps for his choral music that he is best known.  Even within this repertoire, however, his sacred music is more well known than his many secular partsongs.  The Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, conducted by Paul Spicer, have released a disc of 25 of these part songs, and they demonstrate the great variety, and command of his choral writing, as well as his ability to use harmony and choral textures to illuminate a text.  On the disc, they have broken up the songs from their sets, which is a good idea, as the variety comes from the different texts and changes in Stanford’s style over the twenty years these songs span.  His settings of Mary Coleridge are the most interesting and successful, but he also set texts by Tennyson, May Byron and anonymous Elizabethan texts.  The most well-known of the partsongs, The Blue Bird, receives an accomplished performance here, with a crystal clear solo from Natalie Hyde.  The Swallow (lightly reflective) and The Haven (dark and atmospheric), two more Coleridge settings, are sensitively performed here.  A few of the songs feel very dated and time-bound now, not least the sycophantic hymn to Queen Victoria, Out in the Windy West.  However, Stanford also shows how far the format can be stretched, with ambitious double choir textures in On Time, similar in some ways to his well-known double-choir Magnificat.  The voices here are strong, full of energy and precision, and incredibly well-drilled.  Occasionally, the higher voices sound a little strident, and I miss the mellower tones that more mature voices would bring.  But these are highly accomplished performances, making this a great collection of Stanford’s partsongs, many not previously available on CD.

The Hickox Legacy series continues, with a rerelease includind three works by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - his Cantata misericordium, and two shorter works, Deus in adjutorium meum, and a Chorale after an Old French Carol.  These are sandwiched between the Requiem da camera by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) and Two Psalms by Gustav Holst (1987-1934).  The great champion of English music, the late Richard Hickox, conducted the City of London Sinfonia, and The Britten Singers in these recordings from 1991.  Finzi's Requiem da camera, dedicated to his teacher who was killed in action in 1918, is as much of a protest against the pointless of war as Britten's later War Requiem, and deserves to be performed more.  Britten's Cantata misericordium came hot on the heels of his War Requiem, the success of which explains why this later work hasn’t achieved the same status.  Yet it follows the War Requiem remarkably well, being composed for a ceremony to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Red Cross.   It receives a solid performance here, with John Mark Ainsley (tenor) and Stephen Varcoe (baritone) as soloists.  The two Holst Psalms which complete the disc, although well performed, seem slightly out of place in the company of Finzi & Britten's weightier, solemn works.

Finally, a disc of piano transcriptions of orchestral works by Frederick Delius (1862-1934).  Delius was born in Bradford, the son of German parents, but lived the latter part of his life in France, after a spell in the USA.  As such, his music shows the influence of both African-American and more significantly, French music, and later embraced a much more individual and chromatic style.  In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the transcription of orchestral works for piano solo or duet had become very popular.  In the days before mass availability of recordings, this was often the only way people could ‘hear’ the works at home that they had perhaps heard performed in the concert hall, and domestic piano playing was a significant form of home entertainment.  In this second volume of transcriptions for two pianos, pianists Simon Callaghan and Hiroaki Takenouchi perform five works, all in transcriptions made by friends and fellow composers of Delius.  Paris – The Song of a Great City has a great feel of the caf├ęs, dance halls and night clubs of Paris, jazz harmonies and rhythms mixed with lyrical, atmospheric nocturnal scene painting.  Summer Night on the River is the second of Two pieces for Small Orchestra, the first being the well-known On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring.  Delius’ amenuensis, Eric Fenby said of this piece: ‘One can almost see the gnats and dragonflies darting over the waterlilies, and the faint white mist hovering over willow-tressed banks and overhanging trees’.  The arrangement by Philip Heseltine (otherwise known as the composer Peter Warlock) captures this idyllic scene perfectly.  The Song of the High Hills, for wordless chorus and large orchestra is a wonderful work, and Percy Grainger’s transcription inevitably cannot capture the magic of the incredibly quiet entry by the choir 10 minutes in, but nevertheless, it does manage to communicate the sense of joy and wonder in nature.  Overall, these are fascinating takes on the orchestral works, and the range of colours and textures achieved by the two pianists here in these delightful performances is highly impressive.