Cecilia McDowall: The Girl from Aleppo (CR054)
Review by Will Todd
I greatly enjoyed listening to this new 5 movement cantata, commissioned from eminent British composer Celia McDowall by the National Children’s Choir of Great Britain and conducted by Dan Ludford Thomas on this premiere Convivium recording.
With words by Kevin Crossley-Holland the cantata is based on a book of the same name written by Christina Lamb and Nujeen Mustafa, whose real life story it is. A useful note in the booklet contextualizes the work and the narrative, necessary, as, in a work of only 20 minutes, it would be impossible to deliver every nuance of the original book. Crossley-Hollands and McDowall make good choices of some notable moments in the overall story to hang the movements on.
Overall the performances are very strong with haunting and powerful solo material from Harriet Mackenzie (violin) underpinned with excellent piano accompaniment by Claire Dunham. The writing for the youth choir is very appropriate in that the music allows them to have great impact whilst being mindful of their ranges and technique level. There is a nice mixture of vocal effects (wind in movement one, the waves in movement three), unison and divisi upper voices writing and an SATB movement allowing the young tenors and basses to also feature. Throughout the music is characterized by relatable melodies which make the text very clear. Full marks to conductor and choir trainers as The National Children’s Choir of Great Britain give us a great sound throughout regardless of texture or rhythmic complexity.
The music has different moods – haunting in the opening violin solo, sometimes energetic and fearful (4. A Lost Tribe…) at other times lilting (3: I’d Never Seen The Sea Before…) and finally celebratory in the final section. This is a very emotional piece, dealing as it does with migration and disability and the impact , whilst gentle at times ,is strong in revealing it’s messages. The opening chorale ‘this wreath of words is what we have…’, reprised at the end, connects the act of singing and words to the intensity and pain of the original story without making light of, or in anyway undermining it. The Girl From Aleppo is a work in which the desires, fears, uncertainties and courage of Nujeen Mustafa and her family are properly represented and sung throughout with genuine feeling and emotion.
Will Todd, May 2020