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Hurd: The Window Of Ephesus, Mr. Owen's Great Endeavour / Vass, Goss, Winter, Bundy

Release Date: 09/13/2011 
Label:  Dutton Laboratories/Vocalion   Catalog #: 7269   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Michael Hurd
Performer:  Pippa GossLouise WinterMichael Bundy
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra NovaCity Of Canterbury Chamber Choir
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HURD The Widow of Ephesus. Mr. Owen’s Great Endeavor George Vass, cond; Michael Bundy ( Soldier/Narrator ); Pippa Goss ( Maid ); Louise Winter ( Widow ); City of Canterbury C Ch; O Nova DUTTON 7269 (67:01 Text and Translation)

This is a surprise, and in a good way. Michael Hurd (1927–2006) was a British Read more composer of considerable lyrical scope, based in Hampshire. He never managed the jump to international prominence, but over the years I’ve heard occasional works of his ( Jonah-Man Jazz, Dance Diversions, Swingin’ Samson , a sinfonia concertante) on records and in concert that reinforced a sense of quality. Now we have two more works to add to that list. The Widow of Ephesus (1971) is based on a tale from the Satyricon , probably best known in its fine theatrical adaptation by Christopher Fry, A Phoenix Too Frequent . (The libretto by David Hughes and the composer is extremely twee, and I admit to preferring Fry.) Mr. Owen’s Great Endeavor (1990) is a ballad cantata (with final dance section) wryly sketching the loss of British agrarian culture, the rise of child labor, and increasing social inequality during the Industrial Revolution, before paying a well-deserved tribute to the Welsh industrialist, educator, and social reformer Robert Owen.

I heard The Widow of Ephesus in a very poor transcription of a live performance a couple of decades ago, and thought at the time that it was written in a style reminiscent of one of my favorite 20th-century opera composers, Jerome Moross. Hearing the score now, in far superior sound, with a better cast and orchestra, only confirms that impression. Like Moross, Hurd features many short songs using a scale with a flatted seventh, enharmonic progressions, and occasionally lilting, once-popular dance rhythms, including the waltz (“Your Husband Bids Us Eat Our Fill”). The overall effect is of a flowing warmth that never becomes banal, with contrasts provided by a more athematic continuity. “She Is Too Virtuous to Let Her Sorrow Cease,” “I Like To Lie in the Sun,” “What Would You Say,” “Five Days Weeping,” and the trio “Day and Night I’ve Wept and Sighed” all are eloquently in this vein, while “My Master, My Beloved Master, Is Dead” has a wit that’s equally welcome. The orchestration is deft, especially Hurd’s handling of solo winds, and the work as a whole deserves a far better fate than has befallen it, despite the occasional revival.

Mr. Owen’s Great Endeavor (1990) has the same direct communicativeness of The Widow of Ephesus , but with a foundation in popular ballads (after a stylistic recollection of one of Hurd’s favorite composers, Finzi—an anti-urbanite himself—in its opening chorus, “There Was a Time, Ages Ago”). Once again I find the prim literary humor more than a bit too much, but Hurd’s skillful music has its moderate charms.

The casting is solid. Michael Bundy’s dark baritone is welcome as the Soldier, as is Pippa Goss’s light, finely focused soprano as the Maid. Louise Winter has the right tonal weight and manner for the Widow, but suffers from an uncomfortable vocal spread when emphasizing a note. All three enunciate with great clarity, though complete librettos for both works can be found on Dutton’s website. Bundy is also the narrator in Mr. Owen’s Great Endeavor , where the preciosity of his delivery does little to advance the work’s cause. The City of Canterbury Chamber Choir is attractive if a bit raw. George Vass, whom I did not like at all in a stiff, enervating performance of Tovey’s Symphony in D (Toccata Classics 0033), here does better, putting his concern for clear textures to good use. The Orchestra Nova plays with spirit and definition.

As this is Dutton, I don’t think anybody will be surprised when I add that the engineering finds just the right balance between soloists and orchestra in the opera, and between chorus and orchestra in the ballad cantata. Strongly recommended.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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Works on This Recording

The Widow of Ephesus by Michael Hurd
Performer:  Pippa Goss (Soprano), Louise Winter (Mezzo Soprano), Michael Bundy (Narrator)
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra Nova,  City Of Canterbury Chamber Choir
Mr. Owen's Great Endeavour by Michael Hurd
Conductor:  George Vass
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Orchestra Nova,  City Of Canterbury Chamber Choir

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