Jonathan Dove (b.1959) has composed many operas, as well as orchestral, chamber and film music, but I am personally most familiar with his choral works, ever since singing in performances of his oratorio, There Was a Child, with Brighton Festival Chorus and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Simon Halsey, back in 2011’s Brighton Festival. A few of the BFC tenors were then invited to join the CBSO and the CBSO Chorus for a performance of the work in June of that year, at Symphony Hall in Birmingham. That concert was recorded, and it was great to have the opportunity to really get inside this striking work for soprano & tenor soloists, adult & children’s choruses, and orchestra. I remember then being particularly impressed with Dove’s effortless choral writing, presenting singers with rhythmic and harmonic challenges, but always within very ‘singable’ music – understanding choral singing is still surprisingly rare among composers. And so it was a great pleasure to explore a new disc of Dove’s settings of texts by the Greek poet Sappho (c.630-c.570 BC), commissioned by the Cambridge based choir, the Fairhaven Singers, conducted by Ralph Woodward.
Sappho Sings consists of six settings of fragments of verse, and are scored for the choir and orchestra, and the Fairhaven Singers are joined here by the London Mozart Players. There is great contrast here, with pastoral flutes and perpetual motion underpinning long vocal lines and falling cascades in the opening ‘From Heaven to here’, to driving string energy, vocal jabs and repetitive rhythms reminiscent of John Adams in ‘You burn me’. Dramatic timpani and brass, and racing strings create a stormy background for ‘Love shook my heart’. Then the upper voices are given richer textures from the strings and horns to underpin their tender rendition ‘Of Love’, with its sensual climax left hanging. In contrast, the lower voices have boisterous rhythmic energy in the racier ‘Night’. The set then concludes with more long sustained vocal lines, and building, layered choral textures, in‘Stars around the radiant moon’. There is some lovely word painting here, with falling vocal clusters on ‘stars’, a build to radiant high chords on ‘She’ and ‘silver’, and shimmering high strings left in the air at the very end. These are very effective pieces, with ample variety of textures and vocal styles in a relatively short set (around 19 minutes). The Fairhaven Singers give strong performances here, managing well the challenges of the sustained lines and tricky clustered harmonies, and there were only a couple of points at which the orchestral textures were in danger of overwhelming them in the balance. They sustain the long lines well, and give energy and drive to the more rhythmic passages. These pieces certainly deserve to be picked up by other choirs, adding to Dove’s growing catalogue of strong choral repertoire.