As a glance at the track-listing will indicate, this is a wide-ranging programme. It appears to offer a good representation of the varied musical fare to which Benjamin Nicholas ensures his young singers are exposed. It certainly gives them a broad musical education. One thing seems evident from the results that we can hear on this disc: the boys
love singing. Throughout the programme enthusiasm and commitment are abundantly in evidence.
Enthusiasm will only get you so far, however. Happily, the fifteen treble members of Tewkesbury Abbey’s Schola Cantorum collectively have excellent voices, good musicianship and sound technique as well so the musical results on this disc are very good.
We hear severalRead more very good soloists during the programme but there’s one exceptional voice among the choir in the shape of Laurence Kilsby. The year before this recording was made he was, at the age of eleven, BBC Radio 2’s Young Chorister of the Year for 2009 and it’s not hard to see why from the several solos that are allotted to him. The one that particularly caught my attention was the very first item on the disc, Quilter’s lovely song
Music, When Soft Voices Die. Laurence Kilsby makes a strong impression right from the start, producing a rich, round sound – there’s no hint of shrillness, even though he has some fine top notes. But what strikes me particularly is the intelligence with which a twelve-year old addresses the music. Kilsby doesn’t just get through the notes, he offers a genuine and mature interpretation of the song. I also enjoyed his account of the other Quilter song and, needless to say, more regular treble fare, such as the first verse of John Ireland’s lovely anthem or the Bach/Gounod piece, is grist to his mill. I hope this young man develops into an equally good adult singer when his voice breaks.
It will be seen that there are some pieces in the programme that one is accustomed to hearing treble choirs sing but I applaud very strongly the good leavening of modern music in the selection. The pieces by Arvo Pärt and by Philip Wilby – both of them well executed – are excellent; the Wilby piece is charming. Gabriel Jackson’s
TheLand Of Spices must present a real challenge to young singers. Not only is the wide-ranging vocal line very demanding – and though the Tewkesbury boys cope valiantly it sounds as if they find the music a bit taxing at times – but also the words, by George Herbert, are far from straightforward. It’s a very interesting piece and I think the choir does well to put it across as successfully as they do.
There’s also a short, but characteristically interesting vocal offering from James MacMillan. I’d not previously heard either
Dutch Carol or the organ piece that MacMillan wrote for his own wedding but I enjoyed both. It’s also good to hear this fine composer, who usually writes in a very serious vein, composing somewhat lighter music.
As well as directing the choir very well Benjamin Nicholas contributes two instrumental solos. One is the aforementioned MacMillan piece while the other is the item by Howard Skempton, which is a piano solo. I’m afraid I found the Skempton to be a dreary piece, which doesn’t really seem to go anywhere. In general Paul Baxter’s recorded sound is up to its usual high standard on this disc though I was a little disconcerted from time to time because it seemed to me that sometimes the sound of the piano, when accompanying singers, was clouded a little in the resonant acoustic of Merton College Chapel. Oddly, however, I didn’t notice this during the Skempton piece.
When the singers are accompanied their support comes either from Helen Porter, Director of Music at Dean Close School, Cheltenham, where the boys are educated, or from organist Carleton Etherington, who is the organist at Tewkesbury Abbey. Both make admirable contributions.
Returning to the singing, the boys’ renditions of the three Vaughan Williams items all give great pleasure. I had mixed feelings about some of their American offerings, though all are well sung. Copland’s simple, sincere arrangement of
At The River is a success but I didn’t think the Bernstein song works at all as an item for a group of trebles. In the booklet we read that this was one of the encores on a 2005 American concert tour. It may have worked satisfactorily in that context but I don’t care for it as something to listen to repeatedly on disc. On the other hand, I was fearful that Barber’s great song, also an encore piece from that same US tour, would not sound right, but it does and the boys sing it very well.
The very last piece in the programme is entitled
How Can I Keep From Singing? That is a rather fitting conclusion; it sums up the evident joy these boys have not only in singing well but also in singing for sheer pleasure. It’s a very good way to round off a happy disc.
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