Monday 10 October 2016

Voices of London: Songs of the Big Smoke

Voices of London: Songs of the Big Smoke
Voices of London, Yiu, Lark, Ross, Atkins, Purcell, Holst, Corp, Walton, Sherwin; Jennifer Witton, Elizabeth Lynch, Nick Allen, Piran Legge;
Reviewed by Robert Hugill
Star rating: 4.5

A new song cycle inspired by the City of London

Song in the City, artistic director Gavin Roberts, commissioned a new song cycle in 2012. The cycle, Voices of London, was written by four different young contemporary composers to be performed by four singers and piano. The songs set poetry inspired by the City of London, where Song in the City is based (they give regular lunchtime recitals along with many other activities). On this disc, soprano Jennifer Witton, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Lynch, tenor Nick Allen and baritone Piran Legg come together with Gavin Roberts to perform Voices of London written by composers Raymond Yiu, James Lark, Graham Ross & Joseph Atkins, along with other songs inspired by London by Henry Purcell, Gustav Holst, Ronald Corp, William Walton and Manning Sherwin.

Voices of London consists of nine songs, two each for the soloists and the final one for all four. The cycle opens with Raymond Yiu's Praeludium setting text by the medieval writer Richard of Devises, 'I do not at all like that city'. A short arioso with a rather music-theatre style, both tenor Nick Allen and composer demonstrate a great way with words. James Lark's London (sung by Nick Allen) sets a poem by William Blake in a complex yet lyrical style, with a great use of melisma, which reminded me of Michael Tippett. Graham Ross's setting of Carole Anne Duffy's Translating the English 1989 (sung by Jennifer Wilton), is jazz/blues in style with a strong feel of musical theatre in the use of words.  Raymond Liu's The Telephone combines edgy yet lyrical vocals, sung by Piran Legge with a very spiky piano accompaniment.

Joseph Atkins' Covent Garden Inside Outside (sung by Elizabeth Lynch) sets a poem by Amy Clampit (1920-94) in a striking arioso with a complex piano part. Lynch brings out the real character of the piece in her performance. Graham Ross's Through Galleried Earth (sung by Jennifer Wilton) sets Seamus Heaney; a dramatic, rather edgy piece with an evocative piano part. In This Moment of June (sung by Elizabeth Lynch), Raymond Yiu sets a text by Virginia Woolf from Mrs. Dalloway  as a spiky blues. An effective song, I rather found the combination of Woolf and blues rather disturbing. Joseph Atkins' Shadwell Stair sets Wilfred Owen (sung by Piran Legge) with an attractively complex vocal line complemented by a rather spiky piano part. Finally, James Lark's If London Could Speak... sets a poem by Simon Munnery with all four soloists taking part. The song is characterful, weaving in hints of more popular music.

The cycle works partly because the subject matter is the multiplicity of voices that a city like London has. But musically it hangs together partly because so many of the songs reference music-theatre, jazz and blues. This is not to say that this is light music, far from it, but it is clear that song-writers like Stephen Sondheim and the great blues songsmiths have had a wide influence.

The remaining songs vary from Purcell to the contemporary with an emphasis on the 20th century. Piran Legge sings Gerald Finzi's Rollicum-Rorum, setting Thomas Hardy.  It is a lively, rumbustious piece with a great swing to it, though perhaps Legge could make more of the words. George Butterworth's On the way to Kew, setting William Ernest Henley, evokes RVW. There is a lovely sense of the river in the piano accompaniment, and Elizabeth Lynch sings the song in lovely speaking tones.

Britten's arrangement of Purcell's On the Brow of Richmond Hill comes over as a slightly odd mixture of ancient and modern, and tenor Nick Allen does not quite convince us that he believe in the song. Holst's The Dream City (sung by Jennifer Wilton) sets a poem by Humbert Wolfe, a lyrically passionate pastoral with a rather spare piano part.

There are two songs from Ronald Corp's cycle Flowers of Cities, both sung by Piran Legge. Glide gently sets William Wordsworth with a rippling piano (the Thames again) and lyrical, beautifully calm vocal line. London is a fine town sets the 18th century poet Henry Carey; a perky setting of some rather pointed words.

There are three songs from William Walton's song cycle A Song for the Lord Mayor's Table. Elizabeth Lynch sings Wapping Old Stairs (William Blake) with a lovely sense of character in her voice and a fabulous accompaniment from Gavin Roberts. The Contrast (Charles Morris) is sung by Nick Allen with a perky sense of character, and Jennifer Witton rounds off the group with a bright, brilliant performance of the anonymous Rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons'.

The sequence is rounded of with a delightful performance of Manning Sherwin's A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, beautifully shared between the four young singers.

Raymond Yiu (born 1973) James Lark (born 1979), Graham Ross (born 1985), Joseph Atkins (born 1981) - Voices of London
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) - Rollicum Rorum
George Butterworth (1885-1916) - On the way to Kew
Henry Purcell (1659-1695), arr. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - On the Brow of Richmond Hill
Gustav Holst (1874-1934) - The Dream City
Ronald Corp (born 1951) - Flowers of Cities (extracts)
William Walton (1902-1983) - A song for the Lord Mayor's table (extracts)
Manning Sherwin (1902-1974), Eric Maschwitz (1901-1969) - A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square
Jennifer Witton (soprano)
Elizabeth Lynch (mezzo-soprano)
Nick Allen (tenor)
Piran Legge (baritone)
Gavin Roberts (piano)
Recorded July 2015 at Milton Court, London

The disc is available from CD Baby, or direct from Song in the City.

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