The Fairhaven Singers are based in Cambridge. I’m not sure if the choir consists wholly of amateur singers but, to judge by the singing on this CD, the ensemble’s standard is very high indeed. This is a chamber choir and on this recording 33 singers take part (12/7/6/8). Their repertoire is wide-ranging but it’s particularly noteworthy – and a cause for celebration – that they have a strong track record of commissioning new pieces. Their website carries an impressive list of no less than eighteen pieces that the choir has premiered between 1998 and 2019; the list of composers who have contributed works to this canon includes such luminaries of the choral scene as Bob Chilcott, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Ola Gjeilo, Cecilia McDowall, Carl Rütti and Will Todd. That’s a pretty impressive track record by any standards. The most recent name to feature on this list is Jonathan Dove, whose Sappho Sings was commissioned by the Fairhaven Singers; they premiered it in 2019.
Dove’s work is scored for SATB choir and a modest orchestra (double woodwind, two each of horns and trumpets, timpani & percussion (one player) and strings). The piece, which here plays for 18:33, sets six fragments by the Greek poet Sappho (c630 – c570 BC) in English translations by Alasdair Middleton, who has collaborated previously with Dove as librettist to some of his operatic compositions.
From the very start, the music is appealing; the first fragment ‘From Heaven to here’ opens with light, woodwind-dominated textures. I think perhaps Dove has taken his cue from the words ‘Cool water babbles though apple trees’ because I found the music presented an aural image of a crystal-clear stream. Against this gently rippling instrumental background, the choir sings long, slow-moving melodic lines.
Contrast is immediately provided in the second fragment ‘You burn me’. The text consists just of these three words. The music has a quick pulse, and great energy is imparted through the use of irregular accents in both the vocal and instrumental parts. I was reminded, not for the first time in Dove’s music, of John Adams. Then comes ‘Love shook my heart’. Sappho conjures up an image of a storm among oak trees, so the pounding timpani and the fast, urgent music are highly appropriate in this terse setting.
Once again Dove provides contrast. The next fragment to be set is ‘Of Love’. Here, only the female voices sing. The music is slow and sensuous, gently emphasising the erotic nature of Sappho’s poetic art. This warm, languorous music is very beautiful. Once again, Dove introduces variety by following up with a fast-paced setting, this time for male voices. ‘Night’ again put me in mind of John Adams through the repetition of individual words and the irregular, energetic accents with which the music is peppered. This pulsating movement is characterised by strong rhythmic drive from start to finish.
To conclude, Dove sets ‘Stars around the radiant moon’. Here, the velvety orchestral scoring is enriched with the gentle twinkling sound of crotales, an ideal way to illustrate stars in the night sky. The music is slow, tranquil and very atmospheric. Here, as throughout the work, Jonathan Dove unerringly finds the right musical response to the words. The setting builds to a luminous climax which conveys a sense of achievement and completeness.
I enjoyed Sappho Sings very much. The music is immaculately constructed and consistently attractive. The Fairhaven Singers give a highly accomplished performance. Their conductor, Ralph Woodward is currently the interim Assistant Director of Music at King’s College, Cambridge. It’s evident that he has prepared the choir very thoroughly for this assignment. This isn’t the first recording that the choir has made; their website gives details of a number of other interesting recordings, including some of the works they have commissioned, though we don’t seem to have reviewed any of them here. I’d be keen to hear more of their work. The contribution of the London Mozart Players to this present performance is excellent.
Engineer Adaq Khan has balanced the recording skilfully, enabling the music and performers to be shown to best advantage.
Though readers will note the short playing time of the disc, that is compensated for in the retail price.
I hope that this excellent first recording of Sappho Sings will encourage other enterprising choirs to take up the piece.