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Gary HIGGINSON (b. 1952)
Songs of Innocence and of Experience
Seven Songs of William Blake (Set 1), Op. 33 (1977) [14:45]
Motet: Et omnes eandem escam spiritualem ederunt, Op. 130 (1996) [3:21]
Six Birds, Op. 161 (2009) [4:46]
Two Studies for solo harp, Op. 132 [4:11]
Songs with harp:
Miri it is, Op. 53 no. 2 [1:07]
How beautiful is the rain, Op. 53 no. 3 (1983) [1:42]
Ceresí Song from The Tempest, Op. 154 no. 8 [2:22]
Fairiesí Song, Op. 154 No. 7 (1999) [2:29]
Over Hill, over dale Op. 154 no. 9 (1999) [1:31]
Lead kindly light (from Requiem), Op. 111 (1991) [4:50]
A song of joy, Op. 165 no. 2 (2011) [8:26]
A last confession, Op. 137 no. 2 [2:16]
Seven Songs of William Blake (Set 2), Op. 55 (1979-1982) [24:42]
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano) Danielle Perrett (harp)
The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge; Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir/Sarah MacDonald
rec. 12-13 July 2011, St Georgeís Church, Chesterton, Cambridge. DDD
English texts included
REGENT REGCD381 [76:49]

My colleague, David Jennings, gave a very warm welcome to this disc recently and in doing so referred to it as the first disc of music by Gary Higginson. In fact thatís not quite correct; it is, I think, the first release of his music by a commercial company but a while ago I reviewed a privately-produced two-disc collection of his pieces. I mention that not in any way to correct David but simply in order to point out the existence of other recordings of Gary Higginsonís music. That collection ranges more widely than this Regent disc and includes examples of Higginsonís chamber and orchestra music. There is only one piece common to both discs: the motet Et omnes eandem escam spiritualem ederunt. However, I have no hesitation in saying that anyone coming new to Higginsonís music should start with this Regent disc.
 
Gary Higginson has been at various times a pupil of several highly distinguished British composers, including John Joubert, Edmund Rubbra and Patric Standford. Itís as well to state at the outset that he has been a fellow reviewer on MusicWeb International for a good number of years. However, Iíve never met him and donít know him personally so I hope I can be completely objective in appraising this disc.
 
In my review of the earlier release devoted to Higginsonís music one reservation that I expressed was that the programme was weighted towards music that was serious in tone. Thatís not an issue here; though the music on this disc is most certainly not superficial much of it is fresh and light Ė though not necessarily light-hearted Ė in tone.
 
The album is book-ended by two sets of seven songs to texts by William Blake. These are for a cappella voices with the exception that Higginson includes a drum to accompany the quasi-processional opening song in the Op. 33 set; it is also deployed briefly in the sixth song. One interesting feature of the Op. 33 songs is that the first one, which uses a 14th century Catalan pilgrim melody, furnishes the theme on which the remaining songs are variations. The third song is a duet for soprano and bass. Unfortunately, the music requires better soloists than are to be heard here. Neither voice is sufficiently mature and therefore the singers are unable to characterise the music properly; they sing the notes but offer not much more than that. Indeed, I have to say that this lack of vocal maturity is something of a feature of the Selwyn College choir as heard on this disc. One canít fault their commitment and they sing expressively and with what sounds like excellent attention to dynamics Ė I havenít seen any scores. Thereís a welcome freshness to the sound of the sopranos and altos but the tenors and basses lack amplitude in their tone. One must remember that these singers are probably aged between 18 and 21 but, that said, Iíve heard more polished choirs in the same age bracket. In truth, I think the choir is a bit underpowered and there were occasions when the tuning sounded just a fraction imprecise and when the choral blend was less than ideal. However, thereís also much to admire in their singing and I congratulate them and their director, Sarah MacDonald, for their advocacy of this music.
 
I like Higginsonís Op. 33 set very much. The music is consistently interesting and the use of variation form is intriguing Ė there are just sufficient references to the theme from the first song to make you aware that there is a thematic relationship running through the set and Higginsonís music fits the texts very well. Iím not sure if the poems he has chosen are from Blakeís Songs of Innocence but an air of innocence pervades these songs.
 
In Op. 55 he goes a technical step further in that the first song, to another 14th century melody, supplies the material for a double theme and variations. As he admits, this second set of Blake songs is more complex than its predecessor. The music is more searching too, though itís always accessible. I didnít find it as easy to discern the theme and variations structure this time but Iím sure thatís a failure on my part and not the composerís. As in the earlier set the third song is a duet, this time for alto and bass. The singers here sing with sensitivity but, once again, one feels their voices donít quite have the necessary maturity to bring out all the nuances in the music. The set includes the well-known poem, Tyger, tyger, for which Higginson furnishes some intense music, which the Selwyn choir delivers with great commitment.
 
There are only thirteen singers in the Ely Cathedral Girls' Choir but, my goodness, they make a nice sound! Here, the ensemble is pretty flawless and the sound these young singers make is keen, fresh and crystal-clear. Six Birds is scored for SSAA and harp and, sadly, it seems to be over in a flash. These pithy settings are most engaging and the performance is a delight. The harp accompaniment works a treat and I donít believe itís just the combination of upper voices and harp that put me in mind of Brittenís Ceremony of Carols.
 
Itís not just in Six Birds that Higginson uses the harp effectively. The Two Studies offer a very pleasing interlude between the vocal items and then we find the harp as the accompanying instrument to five solo songs. It seems from the composerís notes that at least some of these Ė the Op. 53 songs Ė were not originally written for harp but they all seem to work pretty well on this instrument. I found Charlotte de Rothschildís voice grew on me Ė perhaps the lower tessitura of parts of Miri it is didnít show her voice to best advantage Ė but she comes into her own in How beautiful is the rain, a soft, sensitive setting which she floats beautifully. Ceresí Song is a very eloquent, lyrical composition while in Fairiesí Song two sopranos are required and Charlotte de Rothschild duets with a member of the Selwyn College choir, Aoife Monaghan. Their voices are well matched and the song is a delight. So too, in a different way, is Over Hill, over dale. Some composers have set this text to quick, light music but Higginson sets off on a different tack. His setting is moderate in tempo and has perhaps the most engaging melody to be heard on the disc.
 
A song of joy sets words from Isaiah. Itís scored for soprano solo, SSAA choir and harp and was written specifically with the present performers in mind. Charlotte de Rothschild gives an expressive performance, though it does sound as if she pushes the tone rather too much on loud high notes, and the Ely choir is, once again, enchanting. The combination of female voices and harp is a winner. I thought this melodious, appealing piece Ė and the performance it receives Ė was a highlight of the programme.
 
Lead kindly light is a movement from a Requiem that Higginson wrote in 1991 and which still remains unperformed in toto though the Selwyn College choir has extracted this setting of Newmanís hymn and performed it as a separate anthem. Itís very expressive and the choir gives a dedicated performance of it. I wonder what the full work is like.
 
There is some very well crafted and appealing music on this disc and itís good to find Regent giving Gary Higginsonís music this exposure. Collectors who are interested in English choral music will find much to reward them here.
 
John Quinn

See also review by David Jennings. (A November 2012 Recording of the Month)

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