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A Walk with Ivor Gurney
Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis [14:18]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Like as the Hart [7:09]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty [5:51]
Judith BINGHAM (b.1952)
A Walk with Ivor Gurney (words by Ivor Gurney; world premiere recording) [12:15]
Ivor GURNEY
By a Bierside (orch. Herbert HOWELLS) [4:28]
In Flanders (orch. Herbert HOWELLS) [3:16]
Sleep (orch. Gerald FINZI, 1901-1956) [3:33]
Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS
An Oxford Elegy [22:54]
Valiant for Truth [5:27]
Lord, Thou has been our refuge [8:18]
Dame Sarah Connolly (mezzo); Simon Callow (narrator)
James Sherlock (organ); Christoper Deacon (trumpet)
Tenebrae
Aurora Orchestra/Nigel Short
rec. 2018, St Giles-without-Cripplegate, London
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from hyperion-records.co.uk.
Texts included
SIGNUM SIGCD557 [44:02 + 43:27] 2 CDs for the price of 1

Tenebrae’s recordings on Signum have, over the years, received a good deal of praise on MWI and this latest release is no exception. With very minor reservations, I greatly enjoyed this new release.

Let’s get one minor grumble out of the way at once: if you are expecting an album chiefly devoted to Ivor Gurney’s music, this is not it – there are just four pieces by him, three of them orchestrated by others, and a new work by Judith Bingham setting words by Gurney, which gives its title to the whole album.

Consider, however, that Gurney was an admirer of Vaughan Williams’ music, especially of the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis which opens proceedings – he and Herbert Howells wandered the streets for half the night in a semi-stupor after the first performance – and the connection becomes clearer.

Ivor Gurney’s sad history is well known: a talented poet and musician whose experiences in Word War I led to mental breakdown and his incarceration in a grim mental institution where he died in 1937. The four pieces included here are well worth hearing, especially when they are so well performed. For a fuller picture of Gurney’s mezzo songs, however, turn to Susan Bickley and Ian Burnside, a fine adjunct to Sarah Connolly’s equally fine performances (Naxos 8.572151 – review review).

Three other recordings available from the Hyperion website also offer attractive performances of Gurney’s music: Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland (Hyperion Helios CDH55187, with Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge, download or CD for £5 – review, with reservations about the VW, but a year later my view had mellowed – review); Severn Meadows and other Songs (Hyperion CDA67243, download or Archive Service CD – review); Ludlow and Teme (Signum SIGCD112, with VW On Wenlock Edge and Ian Venables Songs – review).

It so happens that Sarah Connolly has just recorded for Chandos a collection of English songs which includes three pieces by Gurney, complementary to those on Signum (CHAN10944, Come to me in my Dreams, with Joseph Middleton, piano). I have yet to hear that, but it has been well received and I plan to get around to it. If the performances are as good as those of the three Gurney works here, it should be a winner.

Regular readers will know my tentative attitude to modern music and Judith Bingham has sometimes come close to bringing out the inner curmudgeon in me, but I’m pleased to report that, while my recommendation for this Signum album is not primarily based on this world premiere recording of a setting of Gurney’s words, it certainly didn’t take the edge off my overall enjoyment, not least as a result of Connolly’s fine singing and the support she receives.

Three or four of Vaughan Williams’ works are for me among the most beautiful music ever composed and two of them are on the new recording: his Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis and An Oxford ElegyThe Lark Ascending doesn’t quite make the cut for me, despite its huge popularity. Listen to Tallis’ original tune, a very simple but haunting affair composed for Archbishop Parker’s book of psalms for congregational singing and compare it with the VW Fantasia and marvel at the intensely beautiful work which it became. It receives a very fine performance here, though it just lacks the last gram of intensity of the very best recordings.

Try Andrew Davis with the BBCSO for that last degree, a superb bargain on Warner Apex (0927495842, with Symphony No.6 and The Lark Ascending). Better still, perhaps, especially for those with memories as lengthy as mine, Sir John Barbirolli with the Sinfonia of London, coupled with Greensleeves and a superb Elgar Introduction and Allegro and Serenade for Strings (Warner 5672402 – review – download only).

My highlight of the new Signum recording is VW’s An Oxford Elegy, the text a skilful conflation and condensation of Matthew Arnold’s A Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis. It’s not nearly as often performed as the Tallis Fantasia, but its appeal approaches that work for me. It stands or falls by the quality of the narrator, ideally realised by John Westbrook on a classic recording of VW’s music conducted by David Willcocks, a Cambridge luminary’s tribute to Oxford. That remains available as a download (Warner 2435672215, with equally loving performances of Flos Campi and Sancta Civitas DL Roundup June 2010 review of 5-CD reissue, also still available as download only). It’s now more expensive, even in mp3, than it was as a mid-price EMI CD, but well worth the outlay.

I liked Jeremy Irons narrating the Oxford Elegy on a Naxos release reviewed in DL News 2014/14 part of an album with music by Butterworth and Gurney. A Nimbus recording with Oxford forces, which received mixed reviews from Rob Barnett and William Hedley, remains available separately on NI5166 or as part of a super-budget 4-CD set (NI1754, even less expensive as a download with pdf booklet). It’s by no means a poor performance but Jack May’s narration of the poetry is a little too understated.

I wondered if Simon Callow would default in the opposite direction; he is, after all, known for a somewhat can-belto style. I need not have feared: like Westbrook and Irons he manages to steer a very effective middle course between declamation and sensitivity; though Westbrook still wins on points for me, the orchestral support on Signum and the slightly more forward balance of the spoken words go far to make amends. As heard in 24-bit format, indeed, the recording is very good.

I was relieved to read that ‘Matthew Arnold’s tree’ on Boars Hill – actually an oak, not an elm – has been conserved by the Oxford Preservation Trust and can still be seen on the skyline from Tom Quad of Christ Church.

The third VW piece here comes from his decades-long struggle to compose his opera on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Despairing of ever having it performed, he published sections of it and raided it for his Symphony No.5. We now have complete recordings, but the separate sections are well worth an outing, and such is the case with Valiant for Truth. More treasures from the work in progress are on offer on Hyperion’s collection of VW’s choral music (CDS44321/4 – review review). A Bunyan Sequence is also available separately on CDA66511, download from Hyperion or Archive Service CD, and The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains on CDA66569, download or Archive Service. Go for those two albums, however, and you might as well buy the 4-CD set.

Finally, Lord, Thou has been our refuge, a setting of Psalm 90 and Isaac Watts’ hymn ‘O Lord our help in ages past’ with a rousing conclusion, sounds the whole programme off in grand style. Only VW’s setting of the Old Hundredth would have served as well – now I think of it, to have added that would have meant just five minutes extra. I mustn’t grumble, however; the two CDs and the download add up to 87 minutes but are offered as if for a single album. The stained-glass window in Gloucester Cathedral dedicated to the memory of Ivor Gurney, as featured on the front cover, is the icing on the cake; it was paid for in part by a fundraising concert featuring these performers in much of the same repertoire.

With accomplished performances and very good recorded sound, this may not be quite the hoped-for definitive replacement for the Westbrook and Willcocks Oxford Elegy, but it comes pretty close, and there’s plenty more fine music making here, too.

Brian Wilson




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