Monday, 15 July 2013

Peter Lee-Cox: Of Time and Season - songs for soprano and piano

Six Songs of Gerard Manley Hopkins (?):
Hurrahing in Harvest [2:49] Spring [2:37] Pied Beauty [1:34] Thee, God, I come from [2:28] As kingfishers catch fire [2:24] The Windhover [2:33]
Eight Seasonal Anthems (2005):
Noel Nouvelet (text by composer based on John XII: 24) [4:07] Behold, the herald's voice is calling (Johann G. Olearius) [4:37] Crown him, Lord of Lords (Thomas Kelly) [3:21] God's word is our great heritage (Nikolai Grundwig) [2:39] Baptised into your name most holy (John J. Rambach) [2:38] Saviour, when in dust to you (Robert Grant) [4:02] Come before the Saviour's table (?) [3:05] Rejoice, rejoice this happy morn (Birgitte K. Boye) [3:15]
Cathedral at Night for piano solo (1971) [3:05]
Collected Songs (c.1993):- Let the season lift your spirit (Katherine Foyle)  [3:25] The Clod and the Pebble (William Balke) [1:53] Winter Prelude (T.S. Elliot)  [3:10] Afterwards (Thomas Hardy)  [5:52] Sailing to Byzantium (William Butler Yeats) [4:54] Like the touch of Rain (Edward Thomas) [2:55] Garlic and Sapphires (T.S. Elliot) [2:07] Baby Sleeping (Anna Ahuja)  [3:20]
Lesley-Jane Rogers (soprano) Jennie-Helen Moston (piano)
Rec. 9-11 August 2012, Jacqueline du Pre Building, St Hilda’s College, Oxford.
DIVINE ART dda25109 [73:02]

This new CD of songs by the composer, musical director and organist Peter Lea-Cox is a wide ranging exploration of English verse, songs and religious texts presented in what is a largely, but not entirely, a traditional (or conservative) musical language.  The songs range in mood from the soft dissonance of ‘Winter Prelude’ (T.S. Elliot) to the ‘catchy’ setting of Katherine Foyle’s ‘Let the Season lift your Spirit’. These numbers will appeal to listeners who enjoy the vocal music of composers such as Gerald Finzi and John Ireland, the emphasis being on a sensitive fusion of words and music.
I enjoyed the six Gerard Manley Hopkins settings, which were conceived as a song-cycle. The date of composition is not given. I recognise that these extremely familiar words must be exceedingly difficult to set in a convincing and novel manner.  Peter Lea-Cox has adopted a Finzi-like setting of most of these texts, which will remind the listener of that composer’s Dies Natalis.  There is a good contrast between lyrical music and a more declamatory style. Typically, the songs reveal themselves slowly: they tend to avoid strophic repetition. The largely syllabic settings of these words are particularly effective. I did not like the hymn-like setting of ‘Thee, God I come from, to thee go’- it is in danger of sounding like RVW’s ‘Linden Lea’. Unfortunately, the liner notes give no analysis of these songs: it is as if they have been forgotten.

I am old fashioned. I do not agree with the premise that ‘solo songs’ can be substituted for the choral anthem at Matins or Evensong. It is but a short step from this to choruses accompanied by guitars and synthesisers. It probably has its place – but not in any formal liturgy.  The present ‘Eight Seasonal Anthems’ were written in 2005 for use in the Lutheran Church in London: the texts were culled from that denomination’s Book of Worship.  In themselves these are delightful songs that slip between an almost Andrew Lloyd Webber-y ‘pop’ feel to RVW/Holst folksong and back to something a little more profound.  The effect is typically thoughtful.  I would suggest that this set of eight songs actually makes a good ‘song-cycle’ that could be presented in a church-based recital.
There is a short ruminative piano prelude that has crept into the batting list. It is a fine example of a gently atonal piece that nods to Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie. I certainly hope that there is more where this came from.
I enjoyed the ‘collected songs’ best of all.  Usually, when a poet issues their ‘complete poems,’ it will include scraps, juvenilia and ‘uncollected’ fragments. When it is a volume of ‘collected’ poems it refers to a carefully edited selection of their major achievements. In the case of Peter Lea-Cox’s ‘Collected Songs’ I understand that they have been judiciously chosen from a huge pile of manuscripts. The introduction suggests that the date of composition of these eight songs covers a period of two decades.  I do not believe that they are meant to be heard as a cycle as they are too diverse and lack a musical or literary theme: these songs cover a wide range of poetical and musical emotion.  They are settings of poems by a broad selection of poets including T.S. Elliot, William Butler Yeats and Edward Thomas as well as poets who were members of the composer’s church.
I had not heard any music by Peter Lea-Cox before reviewing this disc. I was aware of his exploits as an organ recitalist and as the founder of the Lecosaldi Ensemble and his directorship of the Camden Chamber Choir. When he was director of music at St. Jude-on-the-Hill Church (1973-1986), he composed a number of anthems and canticle settings. During his time at St Anne’s & St Agnes City Church he produced a ‘huge corpus’ of short choir pieces and ‘offertories’ for solo voice and continuo. These were used at Sunday morning worship.  One of his larger achievements is four ‘Passions’ which balance modern and baroque idioms. I understand that he wrote a number of Chorale Preludes for the organ in a variety of contrasting styles.
Lesley-Jane Rogers gives an outstanding account of these songs. Her voice is well-suited to the variety of moods and styles required by these songs. Her strength lies in holding an effective balance between the more forceful and extrovert numbers and the intimate reflective songs.  The accompanist Jennie-Helen Moston (does everyone associated with this CD have a hyphenated name?) makes a valuable and sympathetic contribution to the proceedings. The liner notes are good (with the above mentioned exception). The sound quality is ideal.
I suggest that these three groups of songs be taken as distinct groups. It is not a CD to listen to from end to end. In case anyone thinks I am being unkind to the composer, I would take the same view of a disc of songs by Schubert, Britten or Ireland. Explore slowly and enjoy the diversity of these songs.  

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