This celebratory CD presents several previously issued recordings of choral music by John McCabe, David Ellis and Stephen Wilkinson himself. Of great interest is the World Première Release of a recording of Late Afternoon in November by Peter Dickinson. All the music (except for the Dickinson) is sung by the William Byrd Singers and all are conducted by Wilkinson.
Peter Dickinson’s Late Afternoon in November was specially composed to celebrate the 21st anniversary of the BBC Northern Singers. It was duly premiered at Keele University on 14 November 1975. Dickinson writes that “I wanted to create a close correspondence between words and music involving scrutiny of the words and even letters of the alphabet in a poem I had written much earlier.” It is very much a work of its time, but rather than present New Complexity, it is characterised by a sense of stasis and calm, with occasional outbursts of conservable brittleness. It presents a good musical picture of an icy, desolate landscape somewhere in Cambridgeshire, I guess.
Several arrangements of folksongs by Stephen Wilkinson are included. These are taken from his collection Grass Roots (2003). There is one each for Wales, England, Ireland and Scotland. They are well-wrought, subtle and imaginative: they deserve to be often performed.
I am curious why only two of the three parts of John McCabe’s Mangan Triptych are included: Visions and Siberia. There would certainly have been room on this CD for the final Motet. The texts are written by the Irish poet, James Clarence Mangan (1803-1849). These are dark, lugubrious poems. The liner notes declare that they “are emanations from a very dark psyche; indeed, Irish poet John Montague described “Mangan as a haunted man who found a metaphor for the stricken psyche worthy of Baudelaire.” Strangely, bearing this in mind the music is immediately approachable and does not typically present a tortured or angst-ridden sound. That said, the opening Visions ranges from “tenderness to screaming madness.” The Mangan Triptych is an essential part of the English choral repertoire. It is just a pity that it is seldom heard.
For some reason, there are no details or dates provided for Betjeman’s Bells in the CD booklet. The track listing simply states that these are “arrangements” by Wilkinson. Who wrote the original tunes? They sound like novel music to me. I found it a most enjoyable work that reflects the patterns of the campanologist’s changes. It is a subtle piece that is full of interest. The three “Bell Poems” set are Wantage, Uffington and Bristol. I think it is the first setting of Betjeman’s verse that I have heard.
My big discovery is David Ellis’s’ Sequentia in Tempore Natali Sancti for choir and soprano soloist. It was written in 1965 and was premiered at Ilkley in the run up to Advent Sunday. The composer has set several of the Advent Antiphons which appear in the Roman Missal and are printed in English Hymnal. Ellis has combined these texts with several verses from the carol: O My Dear Heart, Young Jesu Sweet. There is a good balance here of both rich and spartan choral textures. The final recapitulation of the Carol is perfectly stated.
The final work on this CD is Stephen Wilkinson’s That Time of Year, a setting of Sonnet 73 by William Shakespeare. It is written for baritone solo and full choir. This is a lovely musical recreation of the poet’s meditation on old age and love, with the twist that the former makes the latter imperative, before it is gone for good! The slow-moving harmonies generate a melancholy mood, with, alas, little optimism. It was premiered in the Royal Northern College of Music on 28 May 1977.
I have no concerns about the wonderful sound reproduction and the deeply sympathetic performances of these outstanding works. The liner notes by person/s unknown provide a good introduction to Stephen Wilkinson and the recorded repertoire. (Peter Dickinson did the note for his Late Afternoon in November). The texts are included. Certain details are missing, such as some composer dates, and the above-mentioned omission of particulars about Betjeman’s Bells. Of more concern are the lack of recording dates and source details of the original LP/CD releases.
This is a remarkable disc of interesting, moving and accomplished choral music. It deserves every success. All these pieces ought and need to be part of the repertoire of choirs up and down the country. I hope that Prima Facie will reissue more recordings made by Stephen Wilkinson and The William Byrd Singers.
Peter DICKINSON (b.1934) Late Afternoon in November (1975)
As I walked out arr. Stephen WILKINSON (b.1919) (2003)
John McCABE (1939-2015) Visions (1980)
Rowing down the Tide arr. Stephen WILKINSON (2003)
Stephen WILKINSON Betjeman’s Bells (?)
The Lark in the Clear Air arr. Stephen WILKINSON) (2003)
John McCABE Siberia (1983
The Piper o’ Dundee arr. Stephen WILKINSON (2003)
David ELLIS (b.1933) Sequentia in Tempore Natali Sancti (1965)
Stephen WILKINSON That time of Year (1976)
The William Byrd Singers/ Stephen Wilkinson; The BBC Northern Singers/ Stephen Wilkinson (That time of Year), John Powell (baritone, That time of Year)
rec. Various times, not given)
PRIMA FACIE PFCD147
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.