Friday 12 January 2018

Silence and Music

Silence and Music - Paul McCreesh, Gabrieli Consort
Stanford, Elgar, RVW, Howells, Grainger, James MacMillan, Benjamin Britten, Peter Warlock; Gabrieli Consort, Paul McCreesh; Winged Lion/Signum Classics
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 13 2018 Star rating: 4.0
A beautifully performed and intelligently programmed disc of British part-songs

Silence and Music from Paul McCreesh and the Gabrieli Consort on their Winged Lion / Signum Classics label features a further exploration of the British part-song repertoire. The disc features music by Stanford, Elgar, RVW, Howells, Grainger, James MacMillan, Benjamin Britten and Peter Warlock.

The selection of pieces is evocative and thoughtful, mixing the well known and the lesser-known. There is folk-song here, but even this selection is fascinating including as it does Percy Grainger's disturbing tale The Three Ravens in addition to Brigg Fair, as well as three moving RVW pieces Bushes and Briars, The Winter is Gone and The Turtle Dove.

McCreesh uses a choir of 20 singers, though such is their unanimity and flexibility that they can sound like  far fewer singers, and they are joined by soloists Robert Murray (Brigg Fair) and Neal Davies (The Turtle Dove and The Three Ravens), plus harmonium player Tim Roberts (The Three Ravens). Unlike a lot of conductors in this repertoire, McCreesh is a generalist who has made his name in period performance, and perhaps one can detect some of the way his ear works in the fine beauty and control of these performances.

The programme almost functions as a cycle through the day, opening with a flash of blue in Stanford's The Blue Bird and coming to rest with RVW having had Britten's The Evening Primrose. Stanford's The Blue Bird is concentrated and controlled, with a lovely clarity of line and a fine-grained elegance of sound. This song exemplifies the many virtues of the performances on this disc, and the confidence that McCreesh has in his singers is reflected in the way that the solo line is sung, as intended, by the sopranos rather by a soloist.

This sense of beauty and control, expressiveness and concentration, brings out the best in the more serious items on the disc. Britten's The Evening Primrose made me wish that McCreesh had included all the Five Flower Songs, whilst RVW's Silence and Music, Rest, Peter Warlock's All the flowers of spring and Herbert Howells' The Summer is Coming are remarkable large-scale pieces.

Whilst the majority of the music on the disc comes from the first half of the 20th century, there are two contemporay pieces. James MacMillan's The Gallant Weaver is a setting of a traditional-style poem by Robert Burns. MacMillan makes it wonderfully atmospheric, using pibroch-inflected vocal lines and the Gaelic psalm-singing tradition of having multiple lines doing similar things to completely magical effect. Jonathan Dove's Who killed Cock Robin is more of a tour de force (in the interview article in the CD booklet, McCreesh suggests wryly that it was included to prove that they could singing something fast). Whilst the piece does indeed open fast and furious, it develops into something richly complex.

For me, the highlights of the disc must be the two Elgar pieces from his Opus 53 part songs, There is Sweet Music and Owls. Both fascinating and mysterious, the one using bitonatlity to lovely effect (perfectly done here) and the other deeper and darker than it first appears.

The CD booklet includes full texts, an interview with Paul McCreesh and McCreesh's own photographs, taken on Wainwright's 'Coast to Coast' walk from St Bees in Cumbria to Robin Hood's Bay in Yorkshire.

A lovely disc which provides and thoughtful and rather side-long glance at the British part-song.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) - The Blue Bird
Edward Elgar (1857-1934) - There is Sweet Music
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Silence and music
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) - The Summer is coming
Percy Grainger (1882-1961) - Brigg Fair
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Bushes and Briars
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Winter is Gone
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Turtle Dove
James MacMillan (born 1959) - The Gallant Weaver
Jonathan Dove (born 1959) - Who killed Cock Robin
Percy Grainger - The Three Ravens
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) - The Evening Primrose
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) - All the flowers of Spring
Edward Elgar - Owls (An Epitaph)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Rest
The Gabrieli Consort
Paul McCreesh (conductor)
Recording - Charterhouse School Chapel, Surrey, 9-11 July 2016
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