Thursday 21 January 2016

A new voice - Ascension from James Dunlop

James Dunlop choral works; Alice Burn, Portsmouth Cathedral Choir, David Price; Riverwood Air
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 19 2016
Star rating: 3.5

New choral music from a young musician in the The Band of HM Royal Marines Portsmouth

James Dunlop is a young composer who is currently a musician with The Band of HM Royal Marines Portsmouth and who combines this with a lively career writing concert and production music. This new disc from Riverwood Air features David Price and the Portsmouth Cathedral Choir in a selection of Dunlop's choral music, with Northumbrian piper Alice Burn.

The disc opens with Ascension fanfare which is an upfront, lively piece which introduces us to Dunlop's melodic based style with its rich yet fluid harmonies. I must leave is slower and more intense, yet equally rich, whilst Presence of Eleven is lyrically flowing. Dunlop's style seems inspired by the English choral tradition and his writing owes much to his great predecessors, but he also spices things up and has a cheeky way of slipping between keys especially major and minor.

These three pieces all set sacred texts, though the disc includes programme notes introducing the pieces, we are not given the texts and as the disc was recorded in the lively acoustic of Portsmouth Cathedral it is often tricky to pick out the words.

This is more problematic with Westminster Quarters which celebrates the chimes of Big Ben. The Westminster chimes are incorporated into the piece and the result is rather clever but ultimately a little too curious for my taste as the music from the chimes seems to take rather undue prominence when it occurs. This is followed by the men of the choir singing the plainchant Ave Maria. Finely done, but perhaps a slight odd piece of juxtaposition.

Next comes Dunlop's two movement Hunting Hall Suite which features the Northumbrian piper Alice Burn. The Northumbrian pipes are smaller than the Scottish variety and in the atmospheric first movement you feel that Burn is being heard from a distance, though this may be what was intended. The texture of choir and pipes is an interesting one, though in the first movement I am not quite sure that Dunlop brings it off. The textures never quite coalesce and you are aware of the constituent parts, and I started wondering what the choral sections (an evocation of waking up in Northumbria) would sound like alone. But in the second movement, Ceilidh in the Piggery, Burn's pipes take the lead and are accompanied by the choir to nice effect.

The final group of pieces on the disc all showcase Dunlop's talent for expressive harmonies and melodies. Deal is simple and soulful whilst the lyrical Windrush sets words by John Keats and imagines a walk through the forest (as someone who lives in Brixton the name Windrush to me has very different connotations). Ascend has some lovely dense harmonies crafted into a slow and thoughtful piece. Miracle sets words from Proverbs whilst highly effective Heroes' Tide was written for the D-Day Museum in Southsea.

There were moments when listening to this disc when the pieces evoked composers like Eric Whitacre, and Dunlop has the same ear for the beauties of sounds in harmony. Any of the works on the disc would be a pleasure to encounter singly, and choirs would do well to investigate Dunlop's output. But I have to confess that an entire disc proved a little too much and I began to want a little grit in the mixture occasionally, the odd sharp or jagged edge for contrast.

The performances from David Price and Portsmouth Cathedral Choir are very strong and they give Dunlop's music some admirable support.

James Dunlop - Ascension Fanfare
James Dunlop - I must leave
James Dunlop - Presence of Eleven
James Dunlop - Westminster quarters
Plainchant - Ave Maria
James Dunlop - Hunting Hall Suite
James Dunlop - Deal
James Dunlop - Windrush
James Dunlop - Ascend
James Dunlop - Miracle
James Dunlop - Heroes' Tide
Alice Burn (Northumbrian Pipes)
Portsmouth Cathedral Choir
David Price (conductor)
Riverwood Air RAWCD01 1CD [44.52]

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