ENDNOTES, March 2019
In this edition; contemporary British music on the Sheva label: the Danish National Seasonal Songbook, from OUR Recordings; reviewed by Stuart Millson
Hector Berlioz, Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem), a concert at St Paul’s, reviewed by Leslie Jones
One of the most exciting discoveries made by The Quarterly Review Endnotes column (see Endnotes, February 2018) was the music – and large discography – of the modern English composer, Peter Seabourne; a figure almost completely ignored by the British music establishment. An identifiably 20th and 21st-century composer, Seabourne strongly identifies with our musical tradition – combining the stretched tonality of modern music with the understandable forms and textures associated with Debussy, Takemitsu, Britten and early, romantic-era Schoenberg. A guiding force in the world of the prestigious (but niche) Sheva classical label, the composer has offered recording opportunities to several other overlooked colleagues, including the former choral scholar, student at the Guildhall School of Music, organist and choirmaster, Gary Higginson – an equally prolific, yet neglected artist.
Astonishingly, given that Radio 3 has never mentioned his name or offered any lucrative commission for his music, Higginson has composed over a 30- to 40-year period – writing nearly 200 works. Influenced by such English composers as the symphonist, Edmund Rubbra, and by Carey Blyton (who composed much intriguing minimalist music for BBC Television, particularly for the early Dr. Who programmes), Higginson creates an atmosphere of remote landscapes: the opening of Two Pieces for Solo Flute, Op. 62, suggesting Debussy or Varese, but within moments, giving way to a more playful, pastoral sensation. A rare treat, here, to enjoy Maltese flautist, Laura Cioffi – whose playing, like a painter’s delicate strokes of watercolour, have a gorgeous finesse on Sheva’s almost perfect recording.
Song-cycles – by turns, introspective, and outgoingly operatic – also figure in the collection. For example, the female voice Patricia Auchterlonie, in Messages of Hope, for soprano, baritone, tenor and piano, Op. 87, suggests a contemporary realisation of a Purcell aria; whilst Death in Stanford, from the same group (based upon the writings of the Rev. Christopher Wordsworth, 1807-85) begins with a solo piano introduction – as mysterious, even disquieting, as a study by John Ireland – and ends with the profound feeling of fleeting life and memory, associated with the songs of George Butterworth, Gerald Finzi and Roger Quilter. Such associations may also come to mind in Higginson’s splendid Shakespeare settings: Lawn as White as Driven Snow, and It was a Lover and his Lass – confirm a belief that the sonnet-and-song, once an integral part of English music, has not died but has been rejuvenated. Indeed, the blending of voices, with piano and flute, and stylistic touches reminiscent of the sunlit, almost dance-like choral music of Welsh composer, William Mathias, show that the English song-cycle has taken on a new form.
Peter Seabourne’s teacher and lifelong inspiration, Robin Holloway (b. 1943), a composer of magnificent orchestral works – such as a Peer Gynt-inspired fantasy, performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall to great acclaim – is also celebrated by the Sheva label. Two trios for woodwind, string instruments and piano appear on another of their latest issues. Both are works of extraordinary craftsmanship and invention – fulfilling the composer’s aim, to be – not “a modern among the moderns” but a composer who “pleases, delights, invigorates and stirs”. All of the music on the CD makes a deep impression. In the Op. 115 Sonata, the oboe and violin slowly make a dialogue, then yield to the piano, and begin again in an entirely different mood – like a change of subject in a conversation. But for this reviewer, the most satisfying work here is the 1999 Sonata for Solo Viola, Op. 87. Reminiscent of Britten’s ghostly viola in Lachrymae, wandering through a half-light in the fens, Holloway’s sonata brings you into a musical development, so questing, so restful on the ear and soul that you wish for these effortlessly woven moments of reflection and beauty to never end. Henrietta Hill (associated with the Bach String Quartet and the Philharmonia) is the violist – and, again, how brilliantly this player is served by Sheva’s recording excellence.
From OUR Recordings and the elite choral forces of Danish Radio, comes a light-of-spirit collection of traditional Danish national and seasonal songs – strongly imbued with the folklore and imagination of Hans Christian Andersen and other ancestral voices. Conducted by Bo Holten, one of Denmark’s foremost and innovative choral directors, the collection, as the programme notes indicate, take us to a world before the advent of globalised pop music, in which villagers and communities, large and small, sang together, and made their own musical entertainment according to their country’s seasons, weather, and stories. Despite being performed here by classical, trained voices, the music’s utterance – as something that comes from the heart of a country – is undiminished, spontaneous. 28 Danske Sange comes with beautifully-illustrated artwork, a cover made up of floral illustrations from a botanist’s guide, the stems and growth of the flowers reflecting the natural, free-flowing organic music tradition within.
– Gary Higginson, chamber works, Patricia Auchterlonie, Oliver Brignall, Jonathan Hyde, Laura Cioffi, Alessandro Viale. Sheva, SH209
– Robin Holloway, sonatas, performed by the REST Ensemble. Sheva, SH208
– Arstiderne, 28 Danske Sange, Danish National Vocal Ensemble, OUR 8.226911
Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Berlioz Requiem, Grande Messe des Morts, Philharmonia Orchestra, Philharmonia Chorus, London Philharmonic Choir, tenor Michael Spyres, conducted by John Nelson, St Paul’s Cathedral, Friday 8th March 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones
St Paul’s is a huge space with a challenging acoustic. Reverberation is a particular problem. But Wren’s architectural masterpiece, an exquisite blend of Byzantine and Baroque elements, was the near perfect setting for Hector Berlioz’ monumental Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem). In this work, as in the Symphonie Fantastique, the composer, who died 150 years ago, plays on all the emotions. He considered it his masterpiece.
The Requiem is sung in Latin and divided up into ten sections. It contains some overwhelming musical effects and huge climaxes and it employs massive orchestral and choral forces, with four brass ensembles, no less. Berlioz, something of a musical megalomaniac, thought that a chorus of 800 voices, space permitting, would not be inappropriate! There are stirring fanfares and clashing cymbals. At times, you are immersed in an all-enveloping world of sound. But there are also contemplative and spiritual passages, “bathed in ethereal luminescence”, as in the Kyrie and the Offertory (Brian Robins, official programme). Verdi’s Requiem, which has comparable contrasts, came to mind (see ‘Calvinism for Agnostics’, two reviews of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, QR, October 29, 2018).
This concert was preceded by a reading of John Donne’s Meditation XVII, No Man is an Island, followed by a period of silence for the dead. In a nice touch, André Previn, who passed recently, was mentioned. As QR has commented before, music can sometimes feel like family.