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The Beauty of Bells
rec. various locations in England and Scotland, dates not provided. DDD
SAYDISC CDSDL448 [76:26]

The Saydisc label was founded in 1965 and has a deservedly high reputation for its recordings in the ‘niche’ areas which Saydisc has occupied since then. These include unusual, historic and traditional musics, sound, speech, and music featuring unusual instruments from throughout the world. The evocative sounds of the bells to be heard on this CD are hardly unusual; although they may not be everyday listening for serious music lovers.

The title of this generous hour-and-a-quarter-long CD from the Badminton, Gloucester-based Saydisc alludes to an attribute of bells which you may not have considered until now: that the (church) bells, handbells, and carillons in England and Scotland really are very beautiful.

The 25 tracks (lasting in length from just under one, to six and a half minutes) have actually been culled from three previous CDs by Saydisc: ‘Ringing Clear’ (CDSDL333), ‘Church Bells of England’ (CDSDL378) and ‘Church Bells of Britain’ (CDSDL429). The result to be enjoyed here represents many different sounds: the lovely and evocative bells small and delicate (like the handbells played in an arrangement of Mendelssohn’s On Wings Of Song by Sound In Brass [tr.1]). The large and resonant (like the splendid peals of St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol [tr.4]). The intricate and sophisticated (Little Bob Twenty-In [tr.12] with The Change Ringing Handbell Group (handbells are often used to train church ringers) really does sound like snowflakes falling). The downright jaunty (Grandfather's Clock, Lord of the Dance, Whistling Rufus [tr.s 2,3,14]). And the familiar (Linden Lea, Brahms ‘Lullaby’ Opus 49, No. 4 [tr.s 9, 15]).

If you love the sounds produced by the various forms of bells represented here, you’re unlikely to find the CD monotonous. Nevertheless, the producers at Saydisc have compiled a sequence full of variety. From the beckoning grace of late Baroque composer, Louis-Claude Daquin’s Cuckoo Rondo [tr.5] played with great sensitivity yet drive by Trevor Workman; to the rhetorical - almost preemptory - change-ringing of St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, London [tr.8]. You are always stimulated by what comes next. On the one hand this makes for a useful demonstration of just what the instruments can do; but also - perhaps just as important - the CD provides a musical feast in its own right.

To the experience must be added an awareness of the place in British history of bell ringing. Indeed, the CD is worth its price for the very informative seven-page booklet about the origins and development of ringing… its author(s) claim that ‘almost every village’ had its own handbell ringers, and that the activity was on a par with brass bands in Northern England, for instance.

Bells as we now hear them in our churches date from the early Seventeenth Century. To design, cast and mount bells was no modest achievement. And that booklet even warns that ‘a ringing bell is a dangerous instrument’ and one to be respected until proficiency is acquired!

It was later in the same century in the Low Countries that carillons were first created, and flourished. Carillons are instruments that consist of at least 23 suspended, bronze bells; they are tuned chromatically; usually placed in a tower; and played from a keyboard. If you thought that the mechanics determined the nuance or subtle sonic gradations, think again. Aside from the deftness needed to shape and cast up to several dozen bells (as in an example in the United States alluded to in the booklet) the methods of connecting wires to their clappers, and playing them artistically from manual and pedal is complex - as is heard on each carillon track here.

The different styles of handbells are also described. From ‘off the table’ (handbell ringers pick up, play and dampen several tens of bells available before them as required). To ‘Four in Hand’ (where the two bells held in each hand and played undampened sponsor greater harmonic richness). To the more familiar change ringing in church towers. Here between between six and a dozen bells are rung in sequence, so effectively exploring the huge range of possible permutations thereof until they have all been heard. This is a ‘peal’; it usually begins and ends with the bells available played in one descending scale or ‘round’. Equally fascinating - especially when thinking of serialism in the last hundred years - is the discussion in the booklet of these permutations, the avoidance of repetition, and the astronomical number of possible combinations; and - by implication - the skill (and dedication) of those who devote so much energy and time to the work.

The acoustics on the CD, of course, are those of the various locations in which these recordings were made. Although the tracks vary accordingly in atmosphere and sense of space, there is no lack of sonic cohesion. Even within one genre (the handbells, for example) the breadths of the ‘soundstage’ differ: the Grosmont Handbell Ringers in the well-known Grandfather's Clock [tr.2] have greater resonance than does either the preceding or succeeding tracks. Yet they are all - without exception - well recorded and convey the precision, subtlety and sheer delight of their players and the love they have of their ancient craft.

As said, the booklet contributes hugely to the appeal of this CD. After its general description of bell-ringing and reference to the current revival underway, at least in Britain, it provides information on the players who can be heard on this CD. And goes into interesting detail about the construction, installation, ‘trajectories’ (full circle is a ‘ring’, while all other modes are ‘chimes’) and mechanics of bells. Not only does it almost necessarily and inevitably enhance our appreciation of the music; but it also provides a very useful survey of the entire field as represented by this enticing collection. This is not a ‘documentary’ CD. Nor does it insist on anything necessarily special about bellringers and bellringing. Rather, it contains a diverse yet always enticing collection of music that is fresh, yet established and very worth listening to.

Mark Sealey

Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 - 1847)
On Wings Of Song [4.25]
Henry CLAY (1777 - 1852)
Grandfather's Clock [2.05]
Lord of the Dance [1:49]
'Westminster' and 'Cambridge' [2.24]
St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church, London [4.26]
Country Gardens [1.29]
St. Leonard, Bledington, Gloucestershire [6.25]
St. Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol [5.05]
Little Bob Twenty-In [5.03]
The Bells of St. Mary's [2.23]
St Clement Danes Church, Strand, London [3.36]
Sandgate Dandling [1.21]
St. John the Baptist, Burford, Oxfordshire [4.42]
St David, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire [3.46]
Oranges and Lemons at St Clement Danes Church, Strand [0.51]
St Paul's Cathedral, London [4.06]
Westminster Abbey [4.11]
Louis-Claude DAQUIN (1694 - 1772)
Cuckoo Rondo [2.49]
Leon JESSEL (1871 - 1942)
The Parade of the Tin Soldiers [3.20]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 - 1958)
Linden Lea [1.47]
Fernando SOR (1778 - 1839)
Estudio Five For Guitar [1.35]
Kerry MILLS (1869 - 1948)
Whistling Rufus [2:14]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Lullaby [1.39]
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683 - 1764)
Tambourin [1.32]
Charles Louis Ambroise THOMAS (1811 - 1896)
Entracte from Mignon [2.45]
Sound In Brass Handbells
Grosmont Handbell Ringers
The Launton Handbell Ringers
Trevor Workman playing The Bournville Carillon
Clock Chimes and Cuckoo Clock
The Change Ringing Handbell Group
Raymond Aldington playing the Carillon of St John's Church, Perth
Raymond Aldington playing the Carillon of St Marnock’s Carillon, Kilmarnock
Ronald Leith playing the Carillon of St Nicholas' Church, Aberdeen
Peter Stratfold playing the Loughborough Carillon
Unknown or unattributed

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