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Skempton: Ben Somewhere, Etc / Weeks, Et Al


Release Date: 09/25/2007 
Label:  Nmc   Catalog #: 135   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Howard Skempton
Conductor:  James D.E. Weeks
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Birmingham Contemporary Music GroupEXAUDI
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

As fine a birthday tribute as a composer might wish, and offers much listening enjoyment .

Howard Skempton is probably best known as a composer of brief and often deceptively simple instrumental works including a large number of short, at times very short pieces for piano. Some of these were recorded several years ago by John Tilbury (“Well, well, Cornelius” once available on Sony SK 66482). His substantial orchestral work Lento of 1990 – originally released as a single NMC D005 and later re-issued on NMC D032 – came as somewhat of a surprise. More surprisingly still, he recently turned to choral music and – curiously enough – his choral works are generally more extended than his instrumental pieces. I came to know this
Read more part of his output when reviewing a Guild CD (“Flight of Song” – GMCD 7213) including a number of his choral works, both small and large. These featured superb and highly idiomatic choral writing and the composer’s often subtle response to word setting. The breadth of words that Skempton sets in the works recorded here is also worth noting: Flecker (The Bridge of Fire), Shelley from Prometheus Unbound (The Voice of the Spirits), John Drinkwater (Roundels of the Year) as well as words from The Song of Solomon (Rise up, my love).

This disc, released to mark Skempton’s sixtieth birthday, encompasses both sides of his music-making in that it includes and juxtaposes instrumental and choral works. Most instrumental pieces recorded here are suites consisting of short movements, sometimes of an almost lapidary quality. For example, the Chamber Concerto (1995) scored for a small mixed ensemble of fifteen players consists of four movements, the whole playing for a little over five minutes, whereas the Clarinet Quintet (1997) is in three movements playing for a little over eight minutes. The longest work here, Suite from Delicate (1999), scored for two cellos and percussion, is again made up of six very short movements, some of them lasting less than one minute. The most recent work Ben Somewhen (the title refers to drawings by Ben Hartley, some of which are reproduced both on the cover and in the insert notes) is a concertino for double bass and ensemble - a lovely, delightful work that has become a favourite of mine.

As already mentioned earlier in this review, the choral works are the longest single items here. James Weeks aptly describes them as “miniatures-writ-large”. All but one are expressed in a single fairly large movement. Rise up, my love (2002) is more like a small-scale cycle of short part-songs. Skempton’s choral writing – in much the same way as his instrumental writing – is deceptively simple. In fact it puts considerable demands on the singers in order to sustain what Weeks rightly describes as “mighty overarching spans”. Moreover, the apparently simple choral writing must nevertheless pose considerable problems of intonation and breath control. The Exaudi singers rise magnificently to the challenge.

This generously filled disc was released to mark Howard Skempton’s sixtieth birthday. It seems to provide a fair appreciation of his achievement. The music is superbly served by immaculate readings that perfectly bring out the many qualities of this music – material that unerringly achieves its aims but without undue fuss. I fully share Gerald Barry’s words as quoted in Oxford Music Now – Summer 2007: “Howard Skempton’s music is like himself, generous, direct and clean”. It is as fine a birthday tribute as a composer might wish, and offers much listening enjoyment throughout.

Hubert Culot, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1. Ben Somewhere by Howard Skempton
Conductor:  James D.E. Weeks
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Birmingham Contemporary Music Group,  EXAUDI
Period: 20th Century 
Written: by 2005; England 
2. Suite from Delicate by Howard Skempton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1999 
3. Chamber Concerto, for 15 players by Howard Skempton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Period: Contemporary 
4. Quintet for Clarinet and Strings by Howard Skempton
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Birmingham Contemporary Music Group
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1997 
5. The Voice of the Spirits by Howard Skempton
Conductor:  James D.E. Weeks
Orchestra/Ensemble:  EXAUDI
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1999 
6. The Bridge of Fire by Howard Skempton
Conductor:  James D.E. Weeks
Orchestra/Ensemble:  EXAUDI
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 2001 
7. Roundels of the Year by Howard Skempton
Conductor:  James D.E. Weeks
Orchestra/Ensemble:  EXAUDI
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1992 
8. Rise up, my love by Howard Skempton
Conductor:  James D.E. Weeks
Orchestra/Ensemble:  EXAUDI
Written: 2002 

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