Gary HIGGINSON (b.1952)
Two Pieces for solo flute op. 62 (Landscape; Sweet Song of the Summer Woods) (1970) [6:15]
Messages of Hope - soprano, tenor, baritone and piano op. 87 (early 1990s) [21:56]
Three Ben Jonson Songs - baritone and piano op. 126 (mid-1990s) [6:34]
Scenes from Shakespeare - piano op. 164 (2009-10) [8:33]
When Most I Wink, Then Do Mine Eyes Best See - soprano and piano op. 147 (2000s) [3:09]
Three Shakespeare duets - soprano, tenor, flute and piano op. 167 (2010) [9:42]
Sweet Song of the Summer Woods - flute and birdsong op. 167 (2010) [2:56]
Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano); Oliver Brignall (tenor); Jonathan Hyde (baritone); Laura Cioffi (flute); Alessandro Viale (piano)
rec. Steinway Recording, Fulbeck, 2018
SHEVA COLLECTION SH209 [67:47]
The British composer, Gary Higginson, aside from being a thoughtful writer of long standing for MusicWeb International, has written music for a wide range of formations, ages and abilities. There are several orchestral works, two string quartets, a Piano Quartet and much else. A list making up a substantial selection of his works can be viewed here. He trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at various times has studied with Rubbra, Joubert, Patric Standford and Buxton Orr.
The earliest music here is also the first thing heard on this well performed and atmospherically recorded disc. Landscape and Sweet Song of the Summer Woods were completed in 1970. Try as it might, the flute at Lento so easily slips into a Mediterranean hillside idyll and that is the image conjured by the sun-soaked Landscape. Its companion piece is more mercurial with some slow moments and quite a few more that are brisk. Certainly, the blood here both courses and creeps through the veins. We hear the work again - this time for flute and birdsong (not piano) - at the end of the recital. There it agreeably stretches and yawns amid a discreet avian backdrop; nothing as dramatic as Rautavaara's Cantus Arcticus. This makes a cooling and restful conclusion.
Scenes from Shakespeare is for solo piano and is in four short sections which explore subject-matter selected away from the most popular Shakespearean vignettes. Higginson takes risks here and we are rewarded. There's jazzy syncopation in Beatrice and Benedict. The Battle of Bosworth is all of 2:31 of minatory figuration, accelerations and splintering dissonances. This mood continues with Hamlet meets the Ghost of his Father. The first part of the Suite of Scenes takes the form of a piece (Sir Toby Belch …) that combines humour, a sort of nursery rhyme flavour and gawky progress. The fragile lunar arpeggiation of The Statue Awakes is followed by the vigorous and partly jazzy The Witches' Dance.
Messages of Hope is for piano, soprano, tenor and baritone. At 22 minutes this is the longest work here. There are seven songs, some rather in the Britten pattern. These poems do not pursue the obvious and some are ambivalent. The words were compiled by the composer and Colin Pedley in part from the writings of Christopher Wordsworth (1807-1885). In The Railway the music touches, in the piano part, on the foursquare oratory and defiance familiar from some of the songs of Alan Bush. Home is a touching ballad. As with many of these songs, two voices are employed to achieve dramatic effect and move the 'plot' onwards. The tenor's violent entry is also repeated - but with the voice distant - in the second part of the song while the soprano sings in the foreground. There is beauty in this cycle but it is by no means easily won and there are many grim and desolate tracts (like Death at Scutari - a powerful and almost operatic narrative) to be negotiated along the way. Epilogue invokes blessedness but you are left uncertain whether it is actually attained.
Three Ben Jonson Songs for baritone date from the 1990s and are more closely related to the Warlock lineage. Higginson's settings pick up the dark complexities and grey subtlety of the poems. In the swinging ballad That women are but men's shadows (brave to set those words?) does the composer get his grip on a true buoyancy - it's typical of Geoffrey Bush. The intricate setting of the love song When Most I Wink, Then Do Mine Eyes Best See for soprano and piano is interpolated into the middle of the Scenes from Shakespeare. The Three Shakespeare duets add to the small store of such songs for soprano and tenor and include a lavishly used flute. If the Scenes from Shakespeare inventively select their subject matter avoiding the most often set material then these duets, in the two outer songs, return to much tilled fields: Blow Blow thou Winter Wind and It was a lover and his lass. The first of these is vigorous. Higginson, however, explores facets of words you once thought familiar and makes you feel the chill of the winter wind. The middle song, Lawn as White as Driven Snow, has some nice echoing between the two voices and a contented glow to close. It was a lover and his lass cleverly and entertainingly laces the two voices. It stays true to the joyful resonant 'bounce' of the words.
The liner-essay is by the composer and there are his notes on each work to fill out the picture. The words for Messages of Hope, Three Ben Jonson Songs, When Most I Wink, Then Do Mine Eyes Best See and Three Shakespeare Duets are set out in full in the booklet. They appear in an order different from the sequence on the disc. The aptly attractive green-pastel booklet cover is by Marcelle Seaborne and is titled: "Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-Upon-Avon across the Meadows". I should add that there have been other Higginson CDs including Innocence and Experience (review ~ review) from Regent and a privately produced two disc profile set entitled From Above. Gary Higginson's scores can be obtained from
Fand Music Press.
This music and these performances add valuably to the store of songful and pensive British pastoral invention.
Previous review: David Jennings
2 Pieces, Op. 62
Laura Cioffi (flute)
No. 1, Landscape
No. 2, Sweet Song of the Summer Woods
Messages of Hope, Op. 87
Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Oliver Brignall (baritone), Jonathan Hyde (baritone), Alessandro Viale (piano)
I. Entry into Stanford
IV. The Railway
V. Death at Scutari
VI. Death in Stanford
3 Ben Jonson Songs, Op. 126b
Jonathan Hyde (baritone), Alessandro Viale (piano)
No. 1, Come My Celia
No. 2, Slow, Slow Fresh Fount
No. 3, That Women Are But Men's Shadows
Higginson: Scenes from Shakespeare, Op. 164
Alessandro Viale (piano)
I. Bottom's Dream
II. Beatrice and Benedict
III. Battle of Bosworth
IV. Sir Toby - Sir Andrew
When Most I Wink, Op. 147
Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Alessandro Viale (piano)
Scenes from Shakespeare, Op. 164
Alessandro Viale (piano)
V. Prince Hal - Falstaff
VI. Hamlet Meets Ghost
VII. The Statue Awakes
VIII. The Witches' Dance
3 Shakespeare Duets, Op. 167
Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano), Oliver Brignall (baritone), Laura Cioffi (flute), Alessandro Viale (piano)
No. 1, Blow, Blow
No. 2, Lawn as White
No. 3, It Was a Lover
2 Pieces, Op. 62: No. 2, Sweet Song of the Summer Woods (reprise with birdsong)