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