Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Down by the Sea: A Collection of British Folk Songs

James MACMILLAN (b.1959) Lassies, wad ye loe me?
Alexander CAMPKIN (b.1984) A Lover and his Lass
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) The Dark Eyed Sailor
Judith BINGHAM (b.1952) The Orphan Girl
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Yarmouth Fair
John DUGGAN (b.1963) Over the moon
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961) Mo Nighean Dubh (My Dark Haired Maiden)
Hilary CAMPBELL (b.1983) Blow the Wind Southerly
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) Awake, awake
John BYRT (b.1939) Among the leaves so green, O
Stuart Murray TURNBULL (b.1975) Skye
Paul BURKE (b.1988) Fare thee well
Kerry ANDREW (b.1978) All things are quite silent
Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946) The Oak and the Ash
E.J. MOERAN (1894-1950) The Sailor and Young Nancy Blossom Street/Hilary Campbell
NAXOS 8.573069
The opening number, ‘Lassies, wad ye loe me?’ by the senior Scottish composer James MacMillan was composed for a friend’s wedding.  There is a religious, almost cathedral like feel to this setting, which to some extent is at variance with the text. However, the effect is beautiful and exploits some delicious and novel harmonies. It is an attractive start to this interesting exploration of British folk-song. This number acts as a kind of indicator as to what the succeeding tracks manage to achieve. Each of these settings are well contrived, skilfully balanced and written with a fine understanding of the human voice.  The listener cannot but help being conscious of a great continuity of choral achievement in these settings. They span over 70 years, yet there is a consistency and mood about them that almost defies trying to pin down the year of their composition.
There are three strands to the music presented in this CD. Firstly there are a couple of compositions from long-established living composers such as Judith Bingham and the above mentioned James MacMillan. Then, there is a good selection of works by the ‘English Heritage’ composers such as Peter Warlock, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Bairstow, Percy Grainger and E.J. Moeran.  Counterpoised with this are a number of works by composers who are not quite so well-known, but who are clearly making names for themselves.

A brief look at some highlights (for me)… Some of these settings are to ‘popular’ texts and tunes, such as Hilary Campbell’s moving ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’, so beloved by Kathleen Ferrier enthusiasts.  Peter Warlock’s fine ‘Yarmouth Fair’ is probably better-known in its solo song version, but this is equally enjoyable.  The Shakespearean ‘A Lover and his lass’ crops up in so many incarnations, yet I appreciated James Campkin’s cheeky contribution. Most R.V.W. aficionados will know his excellent setting of ‘The Dark Eyed Sailor’: it epitomises the folk song choral tradition. It is good to have Edward Bairstow’s ‘The Oak and the Ash’: Bairstow was organist at York Minster from 1913 until 1946.  The CD concludes with Jack Moeran’s measured and beautiful ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy.’  The final verse rather appropriately suggests that ‘I can no longer stay/For our topsails are hoisted and our anchor is weighed.’

Looking at the texts of these folk songs does reveal a curious, but largely inconsequential, disparity. The CD title implies British folk songs. However, this has been stretched a little in its application. ‘The Orphan Girl’ set by Judith Bingham is an old Appalachian song collected on North Carolina; this may well date back to an original British source. ‘Over the Moon’ is based on a pastiche text by the composer, John Duggan.  And finally, ‘The Oak and the Ash’ is a setting of a ballad attributed to Martin Parker, c 1650.

Blossom Street was formed in York in 2003. (The road leading towards Micklegate Bar from ‘the South’ is known as ‘Blossom Street.’ All the singers at that time were undergraduates at the University of York.  They have a busy programme of concerts, recordings and media appearances. Recently the ensemble released a CD on the Naxos label –‘Sleep, Holy Babe’ which is a collection of Christmas Lullabies. Their director, Hilary Campbell is a free-lance musician based in London: she is involved with a number of choirs, including the Music Makers of London, choral director at Blackheath Conservatoire and is a regular guest conductor for BBC Radio 4’s Daily Service Singers. 
The CD is well-produced. The liner notes are explicit without being detailed. I would have liked more information about some of the younger composers: most of them have their personal web pages. The texts of the folk songs are presented along with brief notes about the choir, Blossom Street and their director, Hilary Campbell.
This is an engaging collection of folk songs that covers a considerable range of mood and musical style. Yet every piece is attractive, easily approachable and totally effective in the setting of their texts.  
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

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