Saturday, 15 July 2017

Fred. Delius and Arnold Bax Choral Music on Naxos

This wonderful CD of choral music by Frederick Delius and Arnold Bax opens with one of my ‘top three’ all-time favourite British part-songs: Delius’ setting of Arthur Symons (1865-1945) ‘On Craig Ddu’. For the record, the other two are John Ireland’s atmospheric ‘The Hills’ and Charles Villiers Stanford’s gorgeous ‘The Blue Bird.’

Fred Delius wrote comparatively little music for unaccompanied chorus. Robert Threlfall’s A Catalogue of the Compositions of Frederick Delius (1977) lists 11 examples: there are also a few arrangements made from the operas and incidental music which are excluded from this tally. Virtually all the ‘original’ part-songs are recorded on this disc. But where is the ‘Wanderer’s Song’ for men’s voices?

Unsurprisingly, Arthur Symons’ poem imagines a sensitive youth sitting high ‘On Craig Ddu’, which seems to be an arch-typical mountain, possibly ‘located’ somewhere in Wales: I am sure that the image is simply a metaphor for someone looking at the hustle and bustle of life from afar. Delius has created a sound that is impressionistic: the music hangs in the cool highland air. The part-writing is perfect.
‘On Craig Ddu’ has the honour of being the very first Delius work that Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) heard. It was to be hugely influential on his development as a composer of vocal music.

Less-well-known, even to Delius aficionados, are the ‘Six Part Songs’ for mixed voices. These settings of German and Norwegian poems were composed between 1885 and 1887. They are not presented in catalogue-order on this CD.
The first, ‘Ave Maria’ with words by Emanuel von Geibel (1815-84), is a rarity for a composer who was a confirmed atheist. Yet this is a thoughtful, numinous reflection on Our Lady’ theological role. The following song, ‘Durch den Wald’ (Through the Woods) by Von Schreck[?] is a choral gambol through shady forest paths. The liner notes suggest that this ‘Schumann-esque’ setting evokes a young man waiting for his lover. There is a darker moment as he wonders if she will turn up. Fortunately, she does arrive.  The brief ‘An den Sonnenschein’, with a poem by Robert Reinick (1805-52) is in similar vein, considering the ‘shining, golden sun.’  The ‘Fruhlingsanbruch’ (The Coming of Spring) by Carl Andersen (1828-83), is a happy little study on larks and singing zephyrs. The song quietly concludes by noting that ‘the world is awoken to most blessed joy.’  The final song in this group is the lively ‘Sonnenscheinlied’ (Song of Sunshine) by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson (1832-1910), which presents a mood of summer, only to be spoilt by midges.
The present CD tracks reflect the Delius Collected Edition by including Henrik Ibsen’s (1828-1906) ‘Her ute skal gildet staa’ (Here we shall feast) (1891) in these Six Part Songs. It is the least successful of the set.
The Carice Singers have not included the setting of Heinrich Heine’s ‘Lorelei,’ as this was probably by another hand.

Another good example of choral writing is the two wordless Unaccompanied Part-songs: ‘To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water’ (1917). The first, ‘slow but not dragging’ is a master-class of Delius’ chromatic harmonic language and epitomises his choral style. It is pointless to ask where this stretch of water is located: it may be Grez-sur-Loing, the Thames, in Yorkshire or Florida. The music is universal.  I do not think that the second song ‘Gaily, but not quick’ is quite as successful as the first: it is certainly not as perfect in design. The solo tenor ardently (a little strained here) sings against a background of ‘La-La’ from the choir. There is something here that suggests the orange groves of Solano rather than the Thames at Maidenhead or the Aire at Bradford.  

‘The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls’ sets words from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s (1809-92) The Princess. The liner notes point out that this is a musical vision ‘…as so often in Delius’s work, one seemingly heard from afar, fading into an infinite horizon.’ This well-written part-song creates all the magic of the ‘horns of Elfland faintly blowing’. Many listeners will be familiar with Benjamin Britten’s setting of the same words in his peerless Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings. 

The ‘Midsummer Song’ for eight voices, is a tiny miniature composed in 1908 for musical festival competitions in the north of England.  It was first performed by the Whitley Bay and District Choral Society, under its director William Gillies Whittaker. Most of the poem is about the joys of love and dance and play, but author R.S. Hoffmann (?) reminds us that the ‘night is not far away.’ The music is jaunty, but occasionally a touch wistful.

Arnold Bax wrote little music for unaccompanied chorus. Graham Parlett’s Catalogue (1999) lists only six works in this genre. One work included on this CD of otherwise unaccompanied choral music is ‘Of a Rose I sing a song, which is a carol for harp, cello, double bass and small choir’ It would have been good if the Carice Singers could have included Bax’s contribution to ‘A Garland for the Queen’ (1953) – ‘What is it like to be young and fair?’, and possibly ‘The Boar’s Head’ which was written for 4-part male voices.
All the works by Arnold Bax have been previously recorded, with The Finzi Singers conducted by Paul Spicer (CHANDOS 9139) providing the nearest competition.

The Bax website currently lists 11 recordings (June 2017) of the motet ‘This Worldes Joie.’  This was composed during 1922, which also saw the completion of the Symphony No. 1 and the Oboe Quintet. The words are derived from a late 13th century text, printed in The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900, (1901). There is a bleakness and desolation about this music that reflects the opening lines, ‘Winter wakeneth all my care/Now these leaves waxeth bare.’ There are very occasional flashes of warmth but this is largely nullified by the music reiterating ‘All we shall die’ which builds up to huge climax:  this is matched by equally bleak music.

The Five Greek Folksongs for unaccompanied chorus was a wartime work, completed in 1942. Parlett quotes a letter from the composer that sums up these settings: ‘I have been arranging some Greek folk-music…at the request of dear old Calvocoressi – such queer Balkan tunes that I have got quite a lot of amusement out of treating them…’ Michel-Dimitri Calvocoressi (1877-1944) was a French music critic and author. He had made several translations of Balkan folk-songs.
Five Greek Folksongs begin with the the ‘modally inflected’ ‘Miracle of Saint Basil’. This is followed by the poignant ‘The Bridesmaid’s Song’ which includes two soprano solos.  ‘In far-off Malta’, captures the wit of the tale of the deacon who stained his surplice with ink, whilst writing his ‘tale of my great love.’ My favourite of the series is ‘The Happy Tramp’ which is thoughtful, and ends when the wanderer is safely home with ‘warm dry clothes’, ‘plump partridges a-roasting’ and ‘loving arms.’ ‘A Pilgrim's Chant’ brings this cycle to a close by once again referring to St Basil, and the tolling of the church bells. All five folk-songs are beautiful, and have been ‘realised’ by Arnold Bax with skill and understanding, despite him being ‘rather bored’ by the whole project. They are convincingly sung on this recording.

‘Of a Rose I sing a song’, which was written for (but not dedicated to) Charles Kennedy Scott and the Oriana Madrigal Society. It is an attractive number that presents some of the ‘otherworld’ magic featured in much of Bax’s music. It is an esoteric meditation on the Nativity of Christ.

‘I Sing of a Maiden that is Matchless’ was composed for five unaccompanied voices, although it is usually sing by a five-part chorus. The anonymous 15th century text was again taken from The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900, (1901). The words present a tender description of the Virgin Mary: ‘Well may such a lady/Godes mother be’. It is a well-wrought, chromatic, little piece that matches Our Lady’s perfection.

Bax’s magnum opus on this CD is the long, complex ‘Mater Ora Filium’ (1921), written for unaccompanied double chorus with a short solo for tenor. It is a song of devotion to Mary and her Son. The liner notes describe the work as a ‘virtuosic essay,’  It is complex and presents the choir with considerable technical challenges. Bax was inspired to compose this magnificent motet after hearing a performance of William Byrd’s Five Part Mass during a concert held in Wyndham Place, organised by Harriet Cohen.  Clearly, this work is filled with the spirit of the Elizabethan era, though there is no way that Bax has created a parody, pastiche or archaism.
‘Mater Ora Filium’ was first performed at the Queen’s Hall on 13th November 1922 by the Oriana Madrigal Society conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott.

Daniel M. Grimley has produced essential, readable liner notes for all these songs. All the texts are printed along with translations where appropriate
I found the singing by the Carice Singers  virtually faultless. Intonation and diction are perfect. Along with their director, George Parris, they provide definitive performances of all these choral works. The ensemble was founded by Parris in 2011 and owe their name to the daughter of Edward Elgar. Carice [Irene Elgar] was a contraction of Caroline and Alice. She was born in 1890 and died as late as 1971. It is hardly surprising that the singers’ first three discs are dedicated to English music (Warlock, Moeran, Ireland, Bax and Delius). 

Track Listing:
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
On Craig Ddu (1907), Ave Maria (1885-87), Durch den Wald (1885-87), An den Sonnenschein (1885-87), Frühlingsanbruch (1885-87), Her ute skal gildet staa (1891), Sonnenscheinlied (1885-87), Two Unaccompanied Part-songs: To Be Sung of a Summer Night on the Water (1917), The Splendour falls on Castle Walls (1923), Midsummer Song (1908)
Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
This Worldes Joie (1922), Five Greek Folksongs (1942), Of a Rose I Sing a Song (1920), I Sing of a Maiden that is Makeless (1923), Mater Ora Filium (1921)
The Carice Singers/George Parris
NAXOS 8.573695 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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