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Down by the Sea - A Collection of British Folk Songs
see end of review for track listing
Blossom Street/Hilary Campbell
rec. 1-3 November 2012, St. Philip’s Church, Norbury, London. DDD
English texts included
*First recordings
NAXOS 8.573069 [55:08]

I first encountered Hilary Campbell and her chamber choir, Blossom Street, with their Christmas disc, Sleep, Holy Babe (review). For their second, equally enjoyable Naxos entry they turn their attention to arrangements of British folk songs.
 
The programme intriguingly mixes what I might call tried and trusted arrangements by the generation of Vaughan Williams and Holst with a number of more recent arrangements. It will be noted that seven of the pieces are receiving their first recordings and, in fact, those by Paul Burke, Stuart Murray Turnbull and Hilary Campbell herself were composed specifically for this recording while the Alexander Campkin piece was written for Blossom Street.
 
In truth, the new pieces are something of a mixed bag. Strictly speaking, the Campkin and Duggan pieces aren’t folk songs at all: Campkin’s spirited piece is a setting of Shakespeare while John Duggan has written his own text which he has set, rather hauntingly, to music that sounds folk-inspired. It’s not easy to arrange a folk song, I’m sure. Above all, one wants to avoid the old barb that the only thing to do with a folk tune is to repeat it, only louder. However, it seems to me that the other pitfall to avoid is to make one’s arrangement too complicated so that it smothers the tune. One or two of the offerings here fall into that trap. Stuart Murray Turnbull’s arrangement is one such: his setting of The Skye Boat Song features some skilful choral writing but it’s too complicated and the melody is overwhelmed. I’m not sure that Judith Bingham, whose choral music I admire, doesn’t commit the same error. The Orphan Girl is an Appalachian folk song and while the invention is remarkable I’m not sure I follow all the harmonic shifts. It’s a bit too sophisticated.
 
On the other hand James MacMillan’s Lassie, Wad Ye Loe Me? strikes me as a conspicuous success. It’s a traditional Scottish tune and MacMillan’s arrangement is full of Celtic atmosphere. The harmonies are evocative and interesting and MacMillan, as so often in his choral music, communicates very directly and effectively. I was also extremely taken with Paul Burke’sFare Thee Well. This features some lovely light choral textures and the writing is consistently interesting and skilful. In the middle comes what I can only describe as a wordless ‘flight of fancy’, which works very well and comes back in a most satisfying way to the home melody. I suppose there was some logic in putting it next to the Burke piece Kerry Andrews’ All Things Are Quite Silent since both are folksongs that Vaughan Williams collected in Sussex in 1904. However, the immediate juxtaposition is cruel for, by comparison with Paul Burke’s piece, the limitations of Kerry Andrews’ arrangement are clearly revealed; it’s just not in the same class as the Burke and, in particular, I could have done without the breathing noises that the choir make, presumably to mimic the wind.
 
Among the earlier generation of arrangers we find the doyen of folk song revitalisers, Vaughan Williams, and his great friend, Holst, whose arrangement of a Welsh tune was unknown to me: it’s very good. Grainger’s arrangement of a traditional Scottish tune is tender and touching; there’s just enough spice in the harmonies to make for interesting listening without overwhelming the fragile tune. This is given one of the best performances on the disc and Hilary Campbell shapes it really well.
 
The singing of Blossom Street gives much pleasure. The choir numbers 23 (6/5/6/6) and the sound is consistently fresh and well-balanced. They have been recorded in a church acoustic which has good natural resonance. Some may think that a slightly drier acoustic would be preferable for this secular repertoire but it works well; the acoustic isn’t too resonant and it is especially apt for the Grainger and Burke pieces. My first thought when I saw the disc was to wonder whether one would want to sit through a programme of folk song arrangements lasting some 55 minutes. In fact, there’s sufficient variety that one can do that though the one criticism I would make of the programme is that the majority of the arrangements are somewhat reflective; I’d have welcomed two or three more lively pieces along the lines of the Moeran arrangement. As it is, only the Campkin, Warlock and Byrt pieces as well as the Moeran really come into the ‘lively’ category. Nonetheless, this is a well sung disc containing some interesting arrangements of the type that one hears too infrequently. It makes for enjoyable listening.
 
John Quinn 

Track listing
James MacMILLAN (b. 1959)
Lassie, Wad Ye Loe Me? [4:53]
Alexander CAMPKIN (b. 1984)
A Lover and his Lass* [2:51]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Dark-Eyed Sailor (from Five English Folk Songs, No. 1) [2:30]
Judith BINGHAM (b. 1952)
The Orphan Girl* [3:18]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
Yarmouth Fair [2:01]
John DUGGAN (b. 1963)
Over the Moon * [3:22]
Percy GRAINGER (1882-1961)
Mo Nighean Dubh (My Dark-Haired Maiden) [5:32]
Hilary CAMPBELL (b. 1983)
Blow the Wind Southerly* [3:56]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Awake, Awake [3:03]
John BYRT (b. 1939)
Among the Leaves so Green, O [2:45]
Stuart Murray TURNBULL (b. 1975)
Skye* [3:21]
Paul BURKE (b. 1988)
Fare Thee Well* [6:48]
Kerry ANDREW (b. 1978)
All Things Are Quite Silent* [4:28]
Edward BAIRSTOW (1874-1946)
The Oak and the Ash [3:15]
E. J. MOERAN (1894-1950)
The Sailor and Young Nancy [3:05]

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