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A Song More Silent - McDowall, Plowman, O'Regan, Beamish

Release Date: 11/25/2008 
Label:  Avie   Catalog #: 2147   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Cecilia McDowallLynne PlowmanTarik O'ReganSally Beamish
Performer:  Sophie BevanAlexandra StevensonSebastian CombertiCarolyn Dobbin,   ... 
Conductor:  Nicolae Moldoveanu
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber ChoirLondon Mozart Players
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Exciting and original modern choral music, splendidly performed.

For some years now Portsmouth Grammar School has commissioned new works for its annual Remembrance Day concert, which the school choir gives in partnership with the school’s Associate Musicians, the London Mozart Players. This very enterprising CD presents some of the most recent compositions. All but one of the works receives its first recording here. The exception is the piece by Cecilia McDowall. That was included on a fine disc of her music on the Dutton Epoch label, to which my colleague, Hubert Culot, gave a warm welcome in 2005 (see review). Otherwise all the music was new to me, though I’ve heard previously, and admired, a number of choral works
Read more both by Tarik O’Regan and by Sally Beamish.

I think the first thing to be said is that it’s fantastic that young singers are being exposed to contemporary music of such quality. More than that, they’re not performing established contemporary works, which would be admirable in its own right, but actually giving the first performances, and thereby starting the performance tradition for these pieces. What an experience that must be!

I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered the music of Lynne Plowman before. Her piece Cries like Silence is written for SATB soloists, choir, orchestra and organ, with optional children’s choir, brass band, electric guitars and bass drums. I’m not certain that the brass band and electric guitars are used in this recording; I think perhaps not. For her text Miss Plowman has chosen to combine two poems, these children singing in stone by e.e.cummings and Crow’s Account of the Battle from Crow by Ted Hughes. In her booklet note the composer tells us that her intention “was to compose a work which would challenge and excite the accomplished young musicians….contrasting dynamic and dramatic story-telling with poignant and lyrical music.” I’d say that she’s certainly succeeded in her aim of providing contrasting music and I would be amazed if she’d failed in the first part of her objective.

In brief, the cummings setting, which is fairly quiet, begins the work. There’s innocence in the vocal writing for high voices (children) and female soloists. The substantial middle section is a gripping, vivid setting of what Miss Plowman aptly describes as Hughes’ “dark and visceral” words. The music is much more jagged and disturbing than that which we heard in the opening cummings section. After a powerful climax the opening music is reprised. Does it now speak to us of innocence despite war or of innocence that will, in time, be corrupted by the violence of our world? I suspect that the thunderous, dull drum-roll with which the piece concludes, after the voices have been silenced, provides us with the answer. This is a provocative, disturbing piece and I suspect it made a huge impact on the young performers, just as it did on this listener.

Cecilia McDowall’s Ave Maris Stella falls more easily on the ear, though that’s not a coded way of saying it’s a lesser piece of music. It’s the only piece on the disc that’s not in English – Miss McDowall uses verses from the old Marian hymn, which refers to the Virgin Mary as the Star of the Sea, and some verses from Psalms 26 and 106, all of them in Latin. The choice of Ave Maris Stella as a text is appropriate given the naval traditions of Portsmouth.

Writing of Ave Maris Stella Hubert Culot opined that it reminded him of Finzi and he also compared the melodic invention with that of John Rutter. I wouldn’t dissent but I’d add that the piece reminds me at times of some of the choral music of Morten Lauridsen. It’s a finely crafted and poetic work, scored for soprano solo, choir and strings. I enjoyed hearing it again in this very good performance.

Tarik O’Regan’s music is attracting a lot of interest these days and the vocal works of his that I’ve heard have all seemed to me to be very interesting indeed. His 2005 piece, And There Was A Great Calm, should enhance still further his reputation. Nowadays the composer divides his time between Cambridge and New York. He writes of this piece that his dual residency played a part in the style of the piece because it contains some of what one might term “traditional” memorial material but also music with more of an urban edge. It’s divided into two sections, the first of which is, in his words, “quiet and gentle (a moment of recollection), while the second is much faster and vibrant (the texts here dealing with transmigration [of souls] and the future. Put simply, And There Was A Great Calm begins looking back and ends going forward”.

I think that’s a marvellous and highly original conception for a Remembrance piece and I believe that O’Regan pulls it off. Thus the first section consists of slow, haunting and contemplative music for high voices and soprano solo accompanied by the string orchestra that O’Regan uses throughout. The second part follows without a break and is much more propulsive. The music does indeed have ‘edge’ but I find both the music and, for the most part, the words that O’Regan has selected, have an air of optimism. For much of this section the music has the character of a vigorous dance, with the choir repeating melodic phrases over a strongly rhythmical string accompaniment that recalls the heyday of the American minimalists. There’s a short pause for a calm soprano solo over slow, ethereal string chords before the dance resumes and the piece hurtles to a sudden end. This is a most imaginative and impressive piece.

The most substantial offering is by Sally Beamish. Her The Lion And The Deer, which falls into six sections, ambitiously brings together English translations of poems by the fourteenth century Persian metaphysical poet, Hafez, and excerpts from haikus contained in a collection, War and Conflicts, written by Year 7 pupils at Portsmouth Grammar School. The haiku excerpts are read by pupils at the school. The piece is scored for countertenor, choir, a small group of strings and trumpet and cello soloists – here the excellent Paul Archibald and Sebastian Comberti respectively. Incidentally, there’s a nice link in that Sally Beamish pursued a career as an orchestral violist before becoming a full-time composer and between 1985 and 1987 she was principal violist of the London Mozart Players.

The work is ingenious, though it’s not easy to grasp, I find. The use of the counter-tenor in particular imparts a suitably Arabian feel to the music and Michael Chance is certainly given some challenging and atmospheric music, to which he responds with his customary eloquence. He and the two solo instruments, the trumpet in particular, carry the argument in the first movement. The following section uses the chorus and the music is more complex, with multi-layered textures and greater use of the spoken haiku interjections. Much of the music in the whole work is moderate or slow in pulse but the fourth movement, ‘Lion’, which is the most extrovert section of the piece, is much quicker in tempo. The choir mainly sings sustained chords and it’s the vigorous orchestral part that, for the most part, drives the music forward.

The counter-tenor returns for the next movement, ‘Horse’, and is given some powerfully dramatic, declamatory music. Frequently pounding timpani suggest the horse’s hooves. The final section reprises material from the opening movement though this time round the solo trumpet, important at the start, is silent. The last few minutes of this, the most extended section, are very affecting with choir and the gently keening counter-tenor gradually bringing the music to a quiet close.

I confess that I don’t feel that I’ve really got to grips with this demanding piece yet. In part I think it’s because I am confused by the subject matter. Sally Beamish tells us that “by placing Hafez’ words in the context of Remembrance Day, I hoped to reflect an ultimate human goal – a theme of enduring love.” I get the connection between Remembrance and human love but for me the chosen Hafez poems don’t really express loving sentiments in a way that I readily comprehend. Maybe I’ll get it in time and so come to a better appreciation of this piece and I’m sure others will understand it much better than I do from the outset.

The Lion And The Deer is certainly a challenging piece and it must be very difficult to perform. However, it sounds as if the young singers and the members of the LMP rise to the occasion splendidly.

Faced with over an hour of music that’s both intellectually and musically difficult the Portsmouth singers acquit themselves splendidly. They’ve obviously been trained with great skill and understanding by their respective choir masters, with the lion’s share of the work falling on Andrew Cleary, the Director of Music at Portsmouth Grammar School and of its Chamber Choir. As with all the best youth choirs, the singing on this disc has freshness, vigour and, where required, an appropriate edge. Above all, it’s the enthusiasm and commitment of these young that shines through and impresses. They are fortunate to have excellent professional collaborators in the shape of the London Mozart Players and some very good vocal soloists. Nicolae Moldoveanu conducts with rhythmic acuity and evident belief in the music.

The recorded sound is first rate, as is the comprehensive documentation.

Absolutely no allowances need be made for the fact that school choirs are involved in these performances. This disc contains some exciting and original modern choral music, splendidly performed.

John Quinn, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Ave maris stella by Cecilia McDowall
Performer:  Sophie Bevan (Soprano), Alexandra Stevenson (Soprano), Sebastian Comberti (Cello),
Carolyn Dobbin (Mezzo Soprano), David Kimberg (Baritone), Michael Chance (Countertenor),
Paul Archibald (Trumpet), Ben Johnson (Tenor)
Conductor:  Nicolae Moldoveanu
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir,  London Mozart Players
Period: 20th Century 
Cries like silence by Lynne Plowman
Performer:  Michael Chance (Countertenor), Ben Johnson (Tenor), Alexandra Stevenson (Soprano),
Sophie Bevan (Soprano), David Kimberg (Baritone), Carolyn Dobbin (Mezzo Soprano),
Sebastian Comberti (Cello), Paul Archibald (Trumpet)
Conductor:  Nicolae Moldoveanu
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir,  London Mozart Players
And there was a great calm by Tarik O'Regan
Performer:  David Kimberg (Baritone), Sebastian Comberti (Cello), Alexandra Stevenson (Soprano),
Sophie Bevan (Soprano), Carolyn Dobbin (Mezzo Soprano), Michael Chance (Countertenor),
Paul Archibald (Trumpet), Ben Johnson (Tenor)
Conductor:  Nicolae Moldoveanu
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir,  London Mozart Players
The Lion and the Deer by Sally Beamish
Performer:  Sebastian Comberti (Cello), Paul Archibald (Trumpet), Ben Johnson (Tenor),
Alexandra Stevenson (Soprano), Sophie Bevan (Soprano), David Kimberg (Baritone),
Carolyn Dobbin (Mezzo Soprano), Michael Chance (Countertenor)
Conductor:  Nicolae Moldoveanu
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir,  London Mozart Players

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