A Multitude of Voices “a fascinating programme finely performed” (★★★★★), Robert Hughill | Convivium Records International

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Review: Planet Hugill
(Robert Hugill)
ON A Multitude of Voices (Christopher Watson, Sospiri)

27th January 2015

On this disc from Convivium Records, Christopher Watson and the choir, Sospiri, present a programme of contemporary works inspired by World War One, many commissioned by the choir as part of their A Multitude of Voices project. Christopher talked to me about the project last year (see my interview with him on this blog) and it is fascinating to hear the finished results. The disc includes music by a varied group of composers, David Bednall, Cecilia McDowall, Frank Ferko, John Duggan, Colin Mawby, Richard Allain, Alexander L’Estrange and Francis Pott. The project was conceived in 2011 by Christopher Watson and composer John Duggan (co-founders of the Oxford-based choir Sospiri) and they were keen for composers to look outside the normal poetic canon.

David Bednall (born 1979), the youngest composer on the disc, drew the texts for his Three Songs of Remembrance from a shortlist he drew up, all of which had made an immediate impact on first reading. Rupert Brooke’s 1914 IV: The Dead, Edward Thomas’s Lights Out and Charlotte Mew’s May, 1915. Bednall’ style is of the intelligent, well-made part-song. Brooke’s poem is complemented by music of lyric beauty whilst the Edward Thomas setting is somewhat darker and edgier. The intimate and thoughtful music for Charlotte Mew’s May, 1915 leads to a finely shaped, powerful climax.

Standing as I do before God by Cecilia McDowall (born 1951) uses a text which combines Edith Cavell’s most famous saying with a meditation by the contemporary British poet Sean Street. McDowall has written music of haunting beauty, which has a spareness to the texture and a nice use of note clusters in the accompaniment. The solo melody (solo soprano Susanna Fairburn) has a sinuous quality to it and the whole combines intensity and meditation.

In Trois Chansons de Guerre, American composer Frank Ferko (born 1950) set three poems by Apollinaire, a poet beloved by Poulenc, who experienced World War One at first hand. La grace exilee is characterised by grace and charm with transparent textures. Les feux du bivouacis slow moving with great clarity of texture, whilst L’adieu du cavalier has just a fragile thread of sound at times. Here the widely spaced lines seem to push the sopranos to their limit.

The Empty Page by John Duggan (born 1963) is one of two duets on the disc accompanied by the Fournier Trio. The booklet notes do not seem to mention who the fine soloists are. The Empty Page combines extracts from Wilfred Owen’s letters with Duggan’s own text in an imaginative dialogue between Owen and his mother. Highly effective, Duggan’s style here is lyric and spare with hints of minimalism in the repeated motifs.

If I Live is a setting of Tom Kettle, the Irish poet killed on the Somme, by Colin Mawby (born 1936), the most senior of the composers on the disc. The poem contrasts the horrors Kettle had seen with his wish to work for peace if he lived. The first section is spare and bleak with the evocatively haunting phrases seemingly halting and not quite joined. The music gets faster and more biting before the closer harmony and more considered textures for the final phrase, ‘Blessed are he peacemakers for they shall be called the Sons of God’. All in all a stunning piece.

As it was is the second of John Duggan’s duets, accompanied by the Fournier trio. here Duggan sets words by Edward Thomas and his wife Helen Thomas. Here Duggan creates an intriguing texture and the duet is hardly a dialogue, more like two monologues interleaved which just come to a stop.

Pain by Richard Allain (born 1965) sets a poem by Ivor Gurney (from Sonnets 1917: To the Memory of Rupert Brooke). Allain has interpolated into the setting the names of the five hundred and fifty one men and boys in the UK’s armed forces killed on 23 April 1915 (the day Rupert Brooke died). Allain texture here uses long held notes and clusters, and it is edgily austere but tonal. There is a quiet intensity to the piece, with a lovely soprano solo over the quiet murmuring which is the list of names.

John Duggan’s Urtod sets a text by the German poet August Stramm which is in fact a sequence of single words. This abstract text conjures from Duggan a slow intense piece that is very instrumental in the way he writes for the singers and which seems to be exploring musical textures rather than harmony or melody

Rain by Alexander L’Estrange (1974) also sets poetry by Edward Thomas. Over a choral part which is full of repetition, L’Estrange places a baritone solo which varies from a monotone to real lyricism but which keeps coming back to the monotone. Though there are dramatic moments, the overall effect is meditative.

The final piece on the disc is Sentinel, a setting of text collated from Edward Thomas’s Rain (again) and Isaac Rosenberg (both killed within a year of each other) by Francis Pott (born 1957). Pott uses Thomas’s prose to complement Rosenberg’s poetry. It is a large scale piece (at over nine minutes, the longest single movement on the disc) and a complex wrought texture. Though Pott’s language is tonal the work is hardly lyric, and is bleak and expressive. A powerful piece.

World War One is not much addressed by unaccompanied choral music and the pieces on this disc represent a fine addition to the repertoire and an imaginative idea from Christopher Watson and John Duggan. The fascinating thing about all these pieces is the way that each composer has chosen to work in the same area of expression. I am sure that the singers, being close to the detail of the music, hear wide differences but to an outside listener they make a coherent group, with nearly all the composers working more or less in similar idioms. As such they provide a fine resource as well as making a fascinating programme finely performed by Christopher Watson and his singers.

Sospiri is a non-professional group arising out of a group of singers who all met in David Skinner’s choir Magdala and some of the original members have gone on to work as professional singers. Throughout the disc they give strong performances in some very challenging music.

(Awarded 5 stars) Robert Hugill Planet Hugill – January 2015

Notes to Editors

Planet Hugill
Planet Hugill is written by Robert Hugill, singer, composer, journalist, lover of opera and all things Handel.

Convivium Records
Convivium Records, a private recording, production, and distribution label, based in London, UK, provides cost conscious opportunities for composers, performers, educators and students to release and market their music on disc and online globally to professional studio standard. With a range of label artists from contemporary British composers to cathedral choirs, performers and vocal ensembles, the label offers expertise across all aspects of private and commercial productions, with a team of engineers, performers, directors, producers and designers supporting projects from concept to album delivery and marketing.

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