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Sing Willow - Shakespeare Songs
Les Sirènes Female Chamber Choir/Andrew Nunn
Fionnuala Ward (piano)
rec. Sherbrooke St. Gilbert’s Church, Glasgow. Dates unspecified
English texts included

I’ve heard a good number of the previous releases on the Albion label. As the record label of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society its mission is to release recordings of music by VW. I have a feeling that music by other composers may have been featured occasionally but to the best of my knowledge this is the first release which has largely contained music by other composers, though VW gets the proceedings off to a good start.

I ought to begin by saying something about the artists. Founded in 2007 by their Music Director, Andrew Nunn, Les Sirènes Female Chamber Choir is a 30-strong ensemble. All the singers are students or graduates of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Some of the members of the choir are probably professional musicians but I’m not sure if Les Sirènes is truly a professional choir. But let’s not mess around with semantics: everything they do on this disc sounds completely professional. I’m not normally drawn to all-female or all-male choirs. Partly that’s because the repertoire these choirs sing often does not appeal to me. The main factor, though, is that I prefer the textural variety that a mixed-voice ensemble offers. On this occasion, however, I was very quickly won over by this exceptional choir. The sound that they make is fresh and clear – and the clarity extends to both words and music. The group is consistently in perfect balance, the various vocal lines ideally integrated. The singing is always disciplined and controlled yet the singers maintain spontaneity. In summary, they’re extremely polished.

The chosen programme consists entirely of Shakespeare settings and in his excellent notes Andrew Nunn tells us that every item is receiving its first recording here – some of the pieces are recorded for the first time in the arrangements sung by this choir.

That’s true of the first two items which are arrangements by Douglas Guest of two of VW’s masterly Three Shakespeare Songs. (Did he not arrange Full Fathom Five, I wonder?) I was mildly disconcerted by Andrew Nunn’s way with Over Hill, Over Dale. The speed seems just a fraction on the cautious side and the singing, lovely though it is, is too legato. The performance doesn’t quite suggest the “nimble scherzo” that the conductor mentions in his notes. In The Cloud-capp’d Towers one can’t but miss the foundation that bass voices bring to VW’s magical chords. Yet Les Sirènes invest those chords with admirable clarity and a lovely sonority while retaining the sense of mystery – no mean achievement. Their performance is exquisite. The sadness of The Willow Song is beautifully conveyed here. Dirge for Fidele appeared as a two-voice duet on another Albion disc, Purer than Pearl, which I reviewed just recently. There a solo soprano and mezzo sang it but it works just as well as a two-part choral piece.

The piece by James MacMillan is a setting of Sonnet 116. He wrote it for the marriage of two friends: what a delectable gift! It was intelligent planning to follow it with a short piece by MacMillan’s teacher, Kenneth Leighton. Canon is an unpromising, if accurate title but the piece is lively and not at all academic.

I’m not sure when Sir David Willcocks wrote his Five Shakespeare Songs. They’re delightful and, as you’d expect from his pen, expertly written for voices. Who is Sylvia is engaging and full of rhythmic vitality. Under the Greenwood Tree is, as Andrew Nunn says “cheeky” and he’s also right to say of the concluding It was a Lover and his Lass that “one can truly imagine it being sung with a nudge and a wink!” I loved the setting of Full Fathom Five. Here Willcocks’ six-part choral writing really evokes the mysterious depths of the ocean. In this piece I really admired the choir’s dynamic range. The longest song is the penultimate Fear no more the Heat o’ the Sun, a setting founded on mysterious homophony.

Hark, Hark, the Lark is also a collection of songs – eight this time – but these are by a variety of hands and the collection has been curated by Bob Chilcott. Chilcott himself contributes two pieces. I’d describe the second of these, Our Revels now are Ended, as typical Chilcott, meaning that in a wholly complimentary way. The words are set to a winning melody, warmly harmonised. Another setting that really caught my attention was And will he not Come Again? by the Australian composer, Paul Jarman. This eloquent piece opens with a beautiful, expressive soprano solo, sung in outstanding fashion by Kirsty Hobkirk after which the melody to which she has introduced us is richly harmonised. Andrea Ramsay’s Over Hill, Over Dale is light, nimble and appropriately Puckish. The last two settings, a lively one by Stephen Hatfield and Jussi Chydenius’ slow, atmospheric You Spotted Snakes with Double Tongues are unaccompanied. The latter is beautifully imagined for female choir. Apart from Allan Bullard and Bob Chilcott the names and music of all the contributing composers were new to me. All eight of these songs are attractive and engaging.

Michael Neaum has arranged a tune by one Robert Johnson which it is thought was used in the first production of The Tempest in 1611; he’s made a fine job of it. The American, Christopher Delp’s setting of Come Away, Come Away Death features highly expressive part-writing and harmonic language.

Somehow it seems fitting to end with settings by two of Britain’s foremost choral composers. Bob Chilcott’s setting of Sonnet 8 is lovely. The John Rutter pieces are arrangements he has made of two of his SATB Birthday Madrigals (1995). These were written to celebrate the 75th birthday of George Shearing so, unsurprisingly, there’s a whiff of jazz in the air. Both go with a swing here.

This is a thoroughly attractive disc in every respect. The music is delightful, for one thing. The choir is superb from start to finish and the accompanied items benefit from fine, understanding pianism on the part of Fionnuala Ward. The performers have been very well recorded indeed in what sounds to be a most sympathetic acoustic.

I said earlier that I’m not usually attracted to single-sex choirs. On the evidence of this disc I could listen happily to Les Sirènes all day.

John Quinn

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Over Hill, Over Dale, arr. Douglas Guest (1916-1996) [1:14]
The Cloud-capp’d Towers arr. Douglas Guest [1:59]
The Willow Song arr. William Pasfield (1909-1994) [1:57]
Dirge for Fidele [4:14]
Sir James MACMILLAN (b. 1959) Sonnet [2:43]
Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929-1988) Canon [1:14]
Sir David WILLCOCKS (1919-2015) Five Shakespeare Songs [14:36]
Compiled and ed. Bob CHILCOTT (b. 1955) Hark, Hark, the Lark
Paul JARMAN And will he not Come Again? [4:03]
Sarah QUARTEL Blow, Blow, thou Winter Wind [2:37]
Bob CHILCOTT Come unto these Yellow Sands [1:28]
Alan BULLARD Hark, Hark, the Lark [2:23]
Bob CHILCOTT Our Revels now are Ended [2:59]
Andrea RAMSAY Over Hill, Over Dale [3:09]
Stephen HATFIELD When Icicles Hang by the Wall [2:46]
Jussi CHYDENIUS You Spotted Snakes with Double Tongues [3:42]
Michael NEAUM Full Fathom Five [1:36]
Christopher DELP Come Away, Come Away Death [3:44]
Bob CHILCOTT Music to Hear [3:48]
John RUTTER (b.1945)
It was a Lover and his Lass [2:24]
When Daisies Pied [3:21]



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