Sir Hubert Parry and Season Songs
Elgar is usually credited as the progenitor of the English musical renascence, and it is certainly the case that his Enigma Variations and The Dream of Gerontius placed our music on a new international trajectory. The symphonies, violin concerto, and further Biblical choral works which followed conveyed a grandeur and an inspiration matched by few, if any, of his contemporaries. But if the compositions featured on a new Chandos CD are a measure of this country’s place in the world, then we must regard the output of Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918) as a major source of the artistic greatness which flowered at the end of the 19th-century.
Using the excellent new facilities of Cardiff’s Hoddinott Hall, the Chandos sound engineers have created yet another CD masterpiece; a treasury of choral-orchestral music by Parry, with the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, under the baton of the great Estonian maestro, Neeme Jarvi. (See our review, published last month, on the music of Svendsen: this, too, was conducted by Jarvi.) In days gone by, Parry’s music would only ever have been conducted by quintessentially English artists, such as Sir Adrian Boult, and it is both suprising and encouraging to see Sir Hubert (the composer of Jerusalem, which features on this record) tackled by today’s European conductors. English music is English, but it is also international, capable of speaking to anyone who appreciates the solemnity and romanticism at its heart, whether they are residents of Bournemouth, or the Baltic states.
One of the most vigorous items in the new collection is the 1897 Magnificat, written for the Three Choirs Festival, and a work which pays tribute to J.S. Bach – not as a replica of Bach, but in the spirit of the 18th-century master, transferred and translated into the English choral tradition. With the markings, Allegro molto – Animato – and the BBC Welsh chorus in fine form (accompanied by Amanda Roocroft, a very well-projected, resonant and sharp soprano voice), Parry’s Magnificat is uplifting, and seems almost unable to contain itself, a suggestion perhaps of the composer’s own physical delight in breezy outdoor activities, such as yachting.
Four years prior to the Magnificat, Parry set a funeral ode, The Glories of our Blood and State, which Jeremy Dibble’s brilliantly-researched programme notes tell us was based upon words by James Shirley (1596-1666), The Contention of Ajax and Ulysses. Elgar, they say, was the British Brahms, and in the opening pages of Gerontius, he may even have been the British Wagner. Yet Parry may also be seen as the Anglo heir to those continental giants, especially in this thoughtful, autumnal piece.
The purely orchestral suite, The Birds of Aristophanes, allows us to appreciate what a truly fine ensemble we have in the BBC National Orchestra of Wales; whose players respond to the time-honoured tone of turn-of-the-century Britishness in the final March. The latter piece would be a wonderful “final furlong” piece at The Last Night of the Proms, noble yet slightly understated, and just right to prepare us for Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. (The March was actually played at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011, as HRH the Prince of Wales – a great Parry enthusiast – reminds us in the foreword to the CD booklet.)
Finally, praise must go to the emotionally-charged recordings of England (written in 1918, and a setting of John of Gaunt’s famous speech in Richard ll) and Jerusalem, which appears on this disc in its original form. Usually, audiences tend to hear Elgar’s orchestration of this great hymn, with its thrilling, spine-tingling, swirling strings, giving the impression of soaring and floating above the world. However, Parry’s original (what one might call a “dark-wood” orchestration, with few frills) is executed in such a way as to repeat that uplifting and airborne emotion! Amanda Roocroft sings the first stanza, her voice bringing to mind such resounding singers of 40 years ago, Elizabeth Bainbridge and Dame Norma Procter; and then, Neeme Jarvi cues the full chorus for the conclusion, allowing a wall of brass to make its plangent final statement.
Without a doubt, this is a recording that is destined to become a classic. Chandos and its artists bring Sir Hubert Parry to life, and we must be grateful for this restoration of unknown and familiar masterpieces.
And rare works, this time, song-cycles, are to be found on the recently-issued disc from EM Records (the recording arm of The English Music Festival, founder, Mrs. Em Marshall-Luck). Another Parry (no relation) has given this recording its title: Season Songs. Ben Parry (b. 1965) sets the words of Cecil Lay (1885-1956) and, interestingly, the singer is accompanied, not by a pianist, but by a marimba player. The choice of this instrument works particularly well in the final song of the set, Spring… “There’s a cow in the field, that the daisies adorn/The cow is enraptured from tail-tip to horn/And lambs in the meadows are glad they were born.” Alive with spring and modern rhythms, Ben Parry’s interpretation of the beginning of the year should be listened to on a bright morning in April: music to feel alive to! Yet the composer also has moments of contemplation, loneliness in fact, and in September, creates a tone, or sound-world, that is a little like the music of Benjamin Britten…
The spider writes the robin’s song,
He writes it with a silver line;
The swallows see the soft refrain
And weave it in the air again.
The photograph on the CD booklet is very probably of the coast at or near Aldeburgh, Suffolk, a shingle beach with fishing boats, and so it is only right that Britten is represented on the disc. His Winter Words, op.52, of 1953 (recorded here at the Snape Maltings) set the poems of Thomas Hardy, my favourite being the Wagtail and Baby – Britten excelling at depictions of birds. The voice of Richard Edgar-Wilson, tenor, is very enjoyable to listen to, and he seems to be a true heir to Peter Pears, who made this area of the repertoire his own.
A recording to savour: a production of high quality, with a seriousness and high artistry to match.
Stuart Millson is the QR‘s Music Editor
Parry: Jerusalem, The Birds of Aristophanes, England, The Glories of Our Blood and State, Te Deum, Magnificat. Amanda Roocroft, soprano; BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, conducted by Neeme Jarvi. CHAN 10740
Season Songs, works by Britten, John Parry, Ben Parry and Andrew Leach. Richard Edgar-Wilson, tenor; Eugene Asti and Andrew Leach, pianists; Sam Wilson, marimba. EMR CD014