Notes and Editorial Reviews
Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Et omnes eandem spiritualem ederunt
Two Studies for Solo Harp.
Songs with Harp.
Lead, kindly light
A Song of Joy.
class="ARIAL12bi"> A Last Confession
Sarah MacDonald, cond;
Ely Cathedral Girls’ Ch;
Chapel Ch of Selwyn College, Cambridge;
Charlotte de Rothschild (sop);
Danielle Perrett (hp)
REGENT 381 (76:49
Text and Translation)
Gary Higginson, born in 1952, is currently director of music at Our Lady’s Chetwynde School in Cumbria, U.K. His background is extremely varied, having spent time as both a church organist and later as a countertenor before turning to composition. The notes indicate that he was strongly influenced by Edmund Rubbra, with whom he took private composition lessons, as well as by Buxton Orr with whom he studied orchestration. The booklet says that Orr’s “gritty serial style and harmonic waywardness gave Gary Higginson a little more freedom of expression,” but later lessons with John Joubert led him back to tonality. I discovered online that he is also a writer on music in addition to his duties at the above-mentioned church and a freelance composer.
His settings of William Blake’s
Songs of Innocence and of Experience
are split into two parts: (1), the Songs of Innocence, opens the CD while (2), the Songs of Experience, closes it. Both are set for choir rather than for a solo singer, with a small amount of percussion used in the opening song (“Piping down the valleys wild”), although several of the songs call for individual voices to emerge from the chorus and sing either as soloists or in duet. Thus in the
Seven Songs of William Blake,
Part 1, soprano Hannah Shairp and bass Raphael Cadenhead perform “The ecchoing green,” while in Part 2 many more solo singers are used: Rebecca Richards, Marie Christie, Mark Bostock, and James Wicks sing in “The voice of wisdom”; Elizabeth Campion sings “The shepherd”; Alexandra Davies and Andrew Thomson sing “Nurse’s song”; Annabel Church and Mayuko Tanno sing “Little boy lost–little boy found”; and Abigail Gibb and Joseph Steadman sing “Tyger, tyger.”
Both choruses used here have an outstanding blend, and although the choir from Ely Cathedral is comprised entirely of girls, even the Chapel Choir of Selwyn College has a fairly high-lying sound, at least as the songs are scored by Higginson. In listening to the disc, I discerned no trace of Buxton Orr’s “gritty serial style” at all. On the contrary, the music is quite resolutely tonal, so much so that it sounds as if it were built up from British part-songs and madrigals. Indeed, a great deal of it is written in open fourths and fifths, and there’s very little dissonance—which, when it does occur, is generally in the form of extending the home chord upward to a ninth or a 10th. What gives the music interest is Higginson’s excellent and tremendously varied rhythmic sense, his superb setting of text, and, at least in these performances, an excellent use of dynamics to add color and shading to the music.
The one drawback to this disc is that neither chorus has good diction, nor do the individual voices used as soloists possess this most basic trait. But of course, singing nowadays tends all towards the perfecting of vowel sounds, which in turn are used to produce “pretty” tones, at the expense of pronunciation. It seems to me that the great choral directors of earlier times, such as Wilhelm Pitz, Robert Shaw, and Margaret Hillis, worked on both, so that their choruses had both an outstanding blend
good diction, but apparently the latter is considered secondary to purity of tone nowadays. There are, of course, exceptions, among them the magnificent Tafelmusik Chorus from Canada, but there don’t seem to be too many choral directors around with the same high standards as Tafelmusik’s director, Ivar Taurins.
The music of the motet,
Et omnes eandem
, sounded very much like an extension of the Blake songs—with the choir’s poor diction, it took me a while to realize that they were singing in Latin and not in English! On the other hand,
setting a text by Neil Curry adapted by the composer, had very sprightly music, using the voices (here of the girls’ choir exclusively) in interesting counterpoint. I also liked the harp accompaniment, which was just colorful enough to complement the voices. On the other hand, I found the “Two Studies for Solo Harp” rather innocuous and uninteresting music.
The two “songs with harp,” set to texts by an anonymous English poet, Longfellow, and Shakespeare (Ceres’s song from
and two fairy songs from
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
), are sung by soprano Charlotte de Rothschild, who possesses a pleasant if rather colorless voice (she almost sounds like a boy soprano). Her diction is a bit better than the choruses’ and she also possesses a lovely floated high range, which is used to fine effect, though her
high notes tend towards hardness. This music is pleasant without much challenging the listener, although I did like the fairy song “Ye spotted snakes,” sung as a duet with Aoife Monaghan. The choral setting of Cardinal Newman’s “Lead Kindly Light” is a portion of Higginson’s Requiem, composed after the death of his father in 1991 but not performed until 2011. Its music is monodic, employing a bit more dissonance in the chordal configuration.
A Song of Joy,
adapted from the book of Isaiah, is written for a double chorus of women’s voices, solo soprano, and harp. Higginson states in the notes that it was commissioned by Sarah MacDonald and written with her girls’ choir and soprano Rothschild in mind. It was originally written to a part of
Song of Songs,
but he felt that this well-known quote from Isaiah seemed more appropriate. Here I discerned some influence of Benjamin Britten in Higginson’s writing. To my ears, it is one of the best and most successful pieces on the CD, effectively written and very effectively sung, the hardness of Rothschild’s high range notwithstanding.
A Last Confession
is a madrigal setting of a poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti written in Italian. Higginson points out that the music is “not at all typical of my latest works,” with a deep melancholy about it. I found the music very similar in style and structure to “Lead Kindly Light.”
The final set of the Blake
Songs of Experience
is, as indicated previously, scored for solo voices from the chorus rather than primarily choral as the
Songs of Innocence
were. The style, too, is a bit more harmonically complex. Once again, poor diction inhibited my full enjoyment of the music. Here, too, the solo voices are not always entirely solo; in “The voice of wisdom – Earth’s answer,” for instance, they simply emerge from the group and then blend back into it. An exception here is the “Nurse’s song,” scored for mezzo and baritone. Perhaps a criticism I might make of Higginson’s music is that so much of it sounds alike that, by the time the disc is concluded, one’s ear may not be able to hear much difference between any of the choral works but tends to run them all together. Nevertheless, this is a pleasant disc of generally well-written choral music with harp and solo interludes, and in that respect it is well worth a listen.
FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
Works on This Recording
Songs with Harp by Gary Higginson
Charlotte De Rothschild (Soprano),
Danielle Perrett (Harp)
A song of joy, Op. 165 no 2 by Gary Higginson
Danielle Perrett (Harp),
Charlotte De Rothschild (Soprano)
Selwyn College Choir,
Ely Cathedral Girls’ Choir
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