Monday 1 February 2016

Beyond Arcady and Bethlehem - music by Michael Head for female choir

Only a Singing Bird - Signum Classics
Michael Head Snowbirds & other songs, Ken Johnston, Gary Carpenter, Stephen Deazley; National Youth Choirs of Scotland Chamber Choir, Christopher Bell, Philip Moore; Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 29 2016
Star rating: 3.5

Rarely performed Michael Head cantata shows the youth choir on great form

Michael Head is best known, perhaps only known, for his songs The Little Road to Bethlehem and The Ships of Arcady (in fact he wrote over 120 songs). But this album on Signum Classics, Only a Singing Bird, showcases another side to Head, his music for female choir. The National Youth Choirs of Scotland's National Girls Choir, conducted by Christopher Bell with pianist Philip Moore, sing a selection of Head's music for female choir and piano, including arrangements of his best known songs, and the ensemble is joined by mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill for the first recording of Head's cantata Snowbirds setting poetry by Sri Ananda Acharya. The disc is rounded off with pieces by Gary Carpenter, Ken Johnston and Stephen Deazley.

Sri Ananda Acharya's poetry (published in 1919) shares with that of Rabindranath Tagore an interesting combination of religious intent with an imagery and specificness which provides an interesting otherness to Western ears. Snowbirds started with Michael Head's setting of two poems for SSA choir and piano in 1953, and he later added further movements to create this choral cantata.

 National Youth Choirs of Scotland's National Girls Choir
National Youth Choirs of Scotland's National Girls Choir
The solo role is not the largest feature of the work and Karen Cargill has to share the spotlight with the choir and there are other smaller solo roles too. Head's music for the choir is finely crafted with lovely intertwining vocal lines supported by the rhythmic filigree of the piano. When he adds the solo to this mix, as in the first movement The Bird of Morn, the result can be magical, and this darkly evocative movement reminded me a little of Frank Bridge. The musical style remains firmly in he English folk terrain, though finely written. The choir makes a lovely even and admirably flexible sound, but by the end of the cantata I found myself noticing the moments when Head ventured beyond his default texture of long lyrical vocal lines and accompanying piano rhythm, such as the elegiac dialogue for mezzo-soprano and baritone in Spring Grass, and the dramatic narrative of the final song King Ra. The additional solos in the cantata are provided by Christina Callion, Rebecca Pennykid, Catriona Hewitson, Alan Rowland, Alice Yeoman

The choir follows this with a trio of songs by Gary Carpenter, The Food of Love - Book 2 setting Shakespeare. The first two songs, Spring and Under the Greenwoo Tree, take Michael Head's textures but add some welcome complexity to the harmonies, whit the final song Winter has an appealing Latin American rhythmic undertow.

The next group mixes Michael Head's original work for female choir and piano, with arrangements of his solo songs. Funny fellow has lively charm whilst the arrangements of The Ships of Arcady and The Little Road to Bethlehem are lovely and make a beautiful change of sound quality from the solo versions. The Robin's Carol and Star Candles are charming and folk-ish pieces but with Ave Maria from Three Sacred Songs (1954) we get a striking change of style with a certain austerity and clarity to the music, and the piece is sung with great poise by the choir. I rather wanted to hear the other two sacred songs as well.

Ken Johnston is a Scottish composer who has worked regularly wit the choir. His Bonnie Wee Thing and The Wind that Shakes the Barley are from songbooks produced by the choir where composers wrote a trio of songs, one pentatonic, one diatonic with accidentals and the other diatonic with no accidental. These two are Johnston's pentatonic ones and both exhibit great charm and imagination in their treatment of the pentatonic scale. Finally The Circus by Stephen Deazley, one of the diatonic (without accidentals) songs from the songbook project. It is a lively and fun piece, sung with great enthusiasm and patent enjoyment by the choir.

The National Youth Choirs of Scotland National Girls Choir under Christopher Bell's direction, is clearly on great form on this disc, singing with clarity of line and flexible even tone. Throughout, Philip Moore provides admirably supportive accompaniment. That the disc is of interest to more than just the supporters of the choir is thanks to the presence of Michael Head's cantata, given a nice gloss by the presence of Karen Cargill.

Michael Head (1900-1976) - Snowbirds
Gary Carpenter (born 1951) - The Food of Love - Book 2
Michael Head (1900-1976) - A Funny Fellow
Michael Head (1900-1976) - The Ships of Arcady
Michael Head (1900-1976) - The Little Road to Bethlehem
Michael Head (1900-1976) - The Robin's Carol
Michael Head (1900-1976) - Star Candles
Michael Head (1900-1976) - Ave Maria
Ken Johnston - Bonnie Wee Thing
Ken Johnston - The Wind that Shakes the Barley
Stephen Deazley - The Circus
National Youth Choirs of Scotland National Girls Choir
Karen Cargill (mezzo-soprano)
Philip Moore (piano)
Christopher Bell (conducter)
Recorded at the RSNO Centre, Glasgow, 8-10 May 2015

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