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]
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)
Aurora Orchestra/Nigel Short
rec. 2018, St Giles-without-Cripplegate, London
Reviewed as 24/96 download with pdf booklet from
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
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 –
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
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 –
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
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 Elegy;
The 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 –
– 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
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
I liked Jeremy Irons narrating the Oxford Elegy on a Naxos release
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). A Bunyan Sequence is also available separately on CDA66511,
or Archive Service CD, and The Shepherds of the Delectable Mountains
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.