Sunday 25 October 2015

Poetry in Music - The Sixteen

Coro - Poetry in Music - The Sixteen
William Harris, Michael Tippett, Thomas Weelkes, James MacMillan, Ivor Gurney, Robert Ramsay, Benjamin Britten, Edmund Rubbra, Michael East, Herbert Howells, Robert Pearsall and Thomas Tomkins; The Sixteen, Harry Christophers; Coro
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Oct 20 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Music and poetry combine in performances of English classics

Poetry in Music the latest disc from Harry Christophers and The Sixteen on the Coro label, combines an attractive selection of British choral music spanning four centuries, with an emphasis on the combination of music and fine poetry. Many of the texts are sacred, but cover a fine variety with music by William Harris, Michael Tippett, Thomas Weelkes, James MacMillan, Ivor Gurney, Robert Ramsay, Benjamin Britten, Edmund Rubbra, Michael East, Herbert Howells, Robert Pearsall and Thomas Tomkins, setting texts by Spenser, Christopher Fry, Robert Burns, Robert Bridges, WH Auden, Helen Waddell, Beaumont and Fletcher, Robert Herrick, John Donne and the bible.

The disc opens with something of a classic, Faire is the Heaven, a setting of Spenser by William Harris, the organist at St George's Chapel, Windsor. Rather conservative in style, but finely conceived for double choir and full of Harris's trademark enharmonic changes, the work is performed here in a posed and very shapely account. The acoustic of St Alban the Martyr in London adds a significant resonance which makes for a lovely atmospheric performance. Christophers gives the music some impulsion, and this is certainly not self indulgent.

Michael Tippett's Dance Clarion Air was written for A Garland for the Queen setting a specially written text by Christopher Fry. It is full of the contrapuntal energy and vivid imagery of the Tudor madrigal filtered through Tippett's own particular imagination. Christophers and his singers give it a lovely rhythmic dance feel and this very appealing performance makes light of the work's difficulties. Thomas Weelkes' When David Heard is one of four setting of this text running through the disc. After the death of James I's eldest son, Prince Henry, there was an upsurge in settings of this powerful text from the book of Samuel. Sung by a smaller group of 12 singers, they give us a performance of quiet beauty.

James MacMillan's The Gallant Weaver sets a poem by Robert Burns, in a work written for Paisley Abbey Choir in 1997. With a texture which is mainly high voices, there is a lovely intertwining of lines to form an appealing whole. Ivor Gurney's large scale anthem Since I believe in God the Father Almighty is a setting of Robert Bridges which Gurney made whilst in the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford in 1925. A complex polyphonic texture uses slightly edgy harmonies to create a work austere beauty. The performance seems to prize beauty of line over comprehensibility and words are not always understandable. Robert Ramsay's setting of When David Heard uses a significant amount of imitation. A thing of great beauty, the 12 singers create a clarity and purity of sound to match the music.

Britten's Hymn to St Cecilia is one of the major works of his earlier period, setting WH Auden's imaginative if sometimes obscure poem. The opening section is taken at quite a steady tempo, but with a lovely responsiveness and lightness from the singers, and a great sense of detail. The second section is aptly swift and light with great accuracy from the singers. The opening of the final section has less prominence to the basses than some performances, with the resulting texture having more coherence. Edmund Rubbra's There is a spirit, sets a text which combines words by the 17th century Quaker James Nayler and the Gospel of St Matthew into a work which is quiet and thoughtful. It is quite a complex piece, and though melodic Rubbra's music is never obvious. Michael East's setting of When David Heard comes over as rather traditional, it was in fact one of the first to appear in print in 1618.

Take him, earth for cherishing, Herbert Howells setting of Helen Waddell's poem (translating Prudentius) has become another classic. The opening, with its hint of plainchant, is suitably austere, but then when we reach the climax the clarity of the singers' performances really pierce, and moments like 'Comes the hour' have a real edge to them. Robert Pearsall's Lay a garland sets a text adapted from The Maid's Tragedy by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. It is a strong piece with lovely long lines building into rich polyphony. Edmund Rubbra's Eternitie sets a poem by Robert Herrick, here long lines combine with Rubbra's complex, yet austere harmony and clear texture. Christophers gives the work a lovely sense of forward motion, leading to a floated ending.

The final When David Heard is Thomas Tomkins setting. Finely shaped and crafted, it expands to long intertwining lines. Finally another William Harris anthem, Bring us, O Lord God setting words by John Donne. Written in 1959, some 34 years after Faire is the heaven it is clearly by the same composer with a nearly unchanged technique, but it is richly beautiful.

The Cd booklet comes with full texts as well as a long and informative article by Andrew Steward which, rather annoyingly refers to the pieces in a completely different order to that on the disc.

This is a lovely disc, with some finely expressive singing and the creation of  some highly beautiful textures. A must for anyone that loves this repertoire.

Sir William Harris (1883-1973) - Faire is the heaven
Sir Michael Tippett (1905-1998) - Dance, clarion air
Thomas Weelkes (1576-1623) - When David heard
James MacMillan (b.1959) - The Gallant Weaver
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) - Since I believe in God the Father Almighty
Robert Ramsey (c.1590-1644) - When David heard
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - Hymn to Saint Cecilia
Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986) - There is a spirit
Michael East (1580-1648) - When David heard
Herbert Howells (1892 -1983) - Take him, earth, for cherishing
Robert Pearsall (1795-1856) - Lay a Garland
Rubbra - Eternitie
Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) - When David heard
Harris - Bring us, O Lord God

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