Friday, 3 July 2020

Lyrical English pastoralism and more: the choral music of Owain Park showcased by The Epiphoni Consort on Delphian

When love speaks - choral music by Owain Park; The Epiphoni Consort, Tim Reader; DELPHIAN
When love speaks
- choral music by Owain Park; The Epiphoni Consort, Tim Reader; DELPHIAN

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 3 July 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A finely-crafted portrait disc, showcasing the lyrical music of the young composer Owain Park

You are as likely to come across Owain Park as conductor (he directs his own ensemble the Gesualdo Six), singer or conductor, and this disc, When Love Speaks, from Tim Reader and The Epiphoni Consort on Delphian focuses on Owain Park the composer, presenting six of Park's choral compositions, both sacred and secular.

The words of Shakespeare are a big focus, with Park's Shakespeare Love Songs and Shakespeare Songs of Night-Time, and clearly texts known for existing settings hold no terrors for Park as his Sing to me, windchimes includes two well-known A.E. Housman poems.

Prior to this disc I had only come across Park's sacred compositions, and it was a pleasure to be able to explore Park's secular music. A singer himself, Park's experience includes being a chorister at St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, and an organ scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, and whilst at Cambridge he studied with John Rutter. This pedigree is reflected in his music, which is beautifully crafted for singers, so that Wind to me, windchimes features vocal writing designed to tax yet fall within the capabilities of amateurs, with a solo piano part to introduce edgier elements into the rhythm and harmonies.

Park's music here is firmly tonal, if he goes exploring then he always returns securely home and you can hear influences of his forbears, including Rutter and RVW, yet always with that sense of the younger composer questioning and asking what if....
We start with a Wordsworth setting, Louisa and the opening soprano solo has a distinct whiff of Jesus Christ the Apple Tree about it, leading to a beautifully made English part-song. And it is this style which characterises much of Park's writing on the disc.

Written for Louth Choral Society, Sing to me, windchimes is a sequence mixing poetry by Lyva Marty, A.E.Housman, Stella Benson, Alice Meynell, and Sara Teasdale which examines love of nature in the context of loss (it was written as a memorial). The six choral movements are finely contrasted, with some imaginative writing and the piano part (played here by Park himself) provides an interesting and imaginative counterpoint with two piano solo interludes. The performances from the choir are finely judged and the singers shape Park's phrases elegantly, though I could have wished that they projected the text a little more, as I did rather need to consult the printed texts.

Antiphon of the Angels sets English translations of texts by St Ambrose and by Hildegard of Bingen. The work was commissioned by Voces8 and violinist Rachel Podger [see my review of their performance of the work at Kings Place in 2018] and uses eight-part choir and solo violin, here Gabriella Jones. It is a substantial piece, lasting 10 minutes. Park begins and ends with a choral melody which harkens back to earlier music yet in its harmonisations has a distinct whiff of today. The main section features violin decoration of quite intense choral writing, and here writing for a professional octet Park can be quite challenging for his singers yet remains true to the lyrical pastoral tradition. Listening to this brought to mind another older contemporary composer, Jonathan Dove, whose music also combines imagination with accessibility.

Shakespeare Love Songs features four movements setting passages from Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, Love's Labour's Lost, the sonnets and Venus and Adonis, selected by the composer. The work was commissioned in 2013 by another amateur group, the Maesbury Singers. We return here to the finely crafted English part-song, with RVW's Shakespeare settings as one point of reference. Park seems to be possessed of a gift of being able to grasp a text and make it his own, no matter what the resonances, and here his vocal writing is full of imaginative touches and rich, almost jazz-inspired, harmonies. But here I have to confess that whilst I found each of the movements beautifully done, I would have rather liked something a bit grittier, more edgy in the mix to balance the lyrical English pastoralism.

Holy is the true light was commissioned in 2018 by Tenebrae for a concert exploring the theme of Remembrance, and Park uses a mixture of liturgical texts along with George Herbert. Park's use of plainchant gives the piece a familiar anchor, yet he combines it with his own textures to create a strikingly rhapsodic work, I was wondering if the Elgar quote on the words 'Alleluia' was deliberate or accidental.

The disc ends with Shakespeare Songs of Night-Time setting texts from Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet, the sonnets, Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard III, Julius Caesar, Henry IV, Othello, and The Tempest with some movements having their texts as a patchwork from different plays. And in the final movement Park takes on RVW as well, setting The cloud-capp'd towers. The work was commissioned in 2014 by Stephen Layton and the Holst Singers, and Park's confident handling of choral textures reflects his confidence his performers. Here Park moves away from the well-made English part-song and gives us something more challenging with a confident handling of a variety of choral textures. Performances from the choir are exemplary, though again needed the printed words, with some fine individual solo contributions.

Owain Park is not yet 30 and has a significant career behind him already; his music was already being performed when he was in his teens. This disc is a fine portrait so-far, introducing us to a young talent and I look forward to a follow-up disc in 10 years time as well see how his music has developed.

This is a well-thought-out disc with a nice variety of music. The inclusion of three longer sequences gives the disc structure and coherence, and we hear a nice mix of Park's music whether written for amateurs or for professional singers. As I have said, I would have liked a touch more grit in the mix, a couple of pieces where we did not feel the young composer was on his best behaviour.



Owain Park (born 1993) - Louisa (2014) [4:41]
Owain Park - Sing to me, windchimes (2018) [26:48]
Owain Park - Antiphon for the Angels (2018) [10:23]
Owain Park - Shakespeare Love Songs (2013) [11:57]
Owain Park - Holy is the true light (2018) [5:57]
Owain Park - Shakespeare Songs of Night-Time (2014) [17:09]
The Epiphoni Consort
Owain Park (piano)
Gabriella Jones (violin)
Tim Reader (conductor)
Recorded 25-27 October 2019, Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood
DELPHIAN DCD34239 1CD [76.59]

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