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Owain PARK (b. 1993)
Louisa (2014) [4:41]
Sing to me, windchimes (2018) [26:48]
Antiphon for the Angels (2018) [10:23]
Shakespeare Love Songs (2013) [11:57]
Holy is the true light (2018) [5:57]
Shakespeare Songs of Night-Time (2014) [17:09]
The Epiphoni Consort/Tim Reader
Owain Park (piano)
Gabriella Jones (violin)
rec. 2019, Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London
Texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34239 [76:59]

I first encountered Owain Park’s music when some short pieces and arrangements of his were included on a Christmas disc by Stephen Layton and the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge (review). Park was an organ scholar at the college. Later, Layton and the Trinity choir devoted an entire CD to his music; this was the subject of a comprehensive review by Claire Seymour. Now a second disc of his music has arrived and this time the performers are Tim Reader and The Epiphoni Consort, whose debut disc devoted to David Bednall’s music, I very much enjoyed back in 2017 (review).

As I write this review, in early June, the UK is taking tentative steps out of the Covid-19 lockdown. Sadly, it seems that live music-making, including music in churches, will be right at the end of the release queue. That made it particularly poignant to read in Michael Emery’s excellent booklet essay of the musical opportunities that came Owain Park’s way during his formative years. These included service as a chorister at the church of St Mary Redcliffe in his native Bristol, then a period as Organ Scholar at Wells Cathedral, followed by a similar position at Trinity College, Cambridge. Throw in conducting opportunities along the way with youth choirs and you have the perfect education for a young musician of talent. We must hope that it won’t be long before musical life is restored in this country – and elsewhere – so that young musicians can benefit from chances to develop and flourish – and, of course, that musicians of all ages and levels of experience can resume doing what they love.

As the contents of this CD demonstrate, Owain Park has made the most of the chances that have so far come his way. The pieces assembled here evidence a seriously impressive young composer who has a natural affinity with choirs. One thing I like about him is his evident ability to compose music that can stimulate and challenge – but not overpower – an accomplished amateur choir. That talent is on display in Sing to me, windchimes. This was composed for the Choral Society in Louth, Lincolnshire in memory of a deceased member of the choir who funded the commission through a bequest. Park composed a set of six choral songs, setting words by four female poets as well as two poems by A E Housman. In Michael Emery’s words, the piece “talks of loss and yearning, but also of spring and rebirth, as well as the power of music.”

I like the songs very much. The independent piano part, here played by the composer, makes an important contribution, not least in two short interludes after the first and fourth songs. All the songs are very good but my ear was caught in particular by the setting of Housman’s ‘Loveliest of trees’. I’m so used to hearing these words sung by a solo singer but Park’s achievement is such that thoughts of even George Butterworth were put from my mind. ‘The Rainy Summer’ to words by Alice Meynell is highly evocative, full of contrasts in response to the text. I also admired the second Housman setting, ‘Into my heart an air that kills’, another poem that I associate with solo singers. Here, Park writes slow music that is initially mysterious. Then there’s a burst of sound at the opening of the second stanza before the music recedes again into mystery tinged with regret. Much though I admire the rest of the set, I think the finest and deepest setting is the last one, ‘Life has a loveliness to sell’. This is a setting of a poem by Sara Teasdale. This Canadian poet is a frequent source of inspiration for Ēriks Ešenvalds and I wonder if Park’s selection of a Teasdale poem is a coincidence: Ešenvalds held a Fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge from 2011-13; did his time there overlap with Owain Park’s? Be that as it may, the choice of poem was a felicitous one and Park responds to Teasdale’s lines with music of no little eloquence. I enjoyed Sing to me, windchimes very much. The music is imaginative and inventive, and though it clearly needs a well-trained and well-disciplined choir to sing it, it sounds to me to be well within the competence of good amateur choirs. I hope that the work will be taken up by enterprising ensembles.

With the exception of one of the shorter pieces, everything else on this programme is for a cappella choir.

There are two collections of Shakespeare settings. Shakespeare Love Songs consists of four songs for which Park compiled his own texts, drawing principally on Love’s Labour’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet and Sonnet CXVI. I liked all four of them, most of all the third and fourth. The third song, ‘So sweet a kiss’ is slow, thoughtful and very beautiful. The music seems to me to be perceptively imagined for voices and the harmonies are warm and lovely. ‘When love speaks’ is another slow song. Here, the music is gentle and it constitutes a very understanding response to the words.

Shakespeare Songs of Night-Time draws on a variety of Shakespearian sources for six songs. All of them end with the same couplet from Romeo and Juliet: ‘Come, gentle night, / come, loving black-brow’d night’. This isn’t a refrain: the music to which the words are set differs but the sentiment provides a cyclical unity. I love the way Park opens the first song, ‘Light thickens’. Those are the first two words in the text and he expands the choral texture, almost from nothing to a full-choir exclamation; it’s very effective and imaginative. Indeed, the telling use of choral textures is a pronounced feature of this song. The third song is ‘Now it is the time of night’, which brings together words from Hamlet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The text conjures up images of sprites and other nocturnal disturbers. I like the way the singers deliberately harden their tone to deliver this unsettling musical vision. The last song is ‘The cloud-capp’d towers’. Brave indeed is the composer who invites comparison with Vaughan Williams’ setting of these words but Park does not duck the challenge: far from it. The music features rich, imaginative chords and is full of mystery. This searching chordal setting can hold its head up high alongside VW’s magnificent piece. Suffice to say that the first time I played the disc I immediately replayed this track -which happens to be the last on the disc – so keen was I to delve further into this music. The music must require terrific control if it is to be to sung properly but the members of The Epiphoni Consort seem inspired by it and sing marvellously. The piece is a magical conclusion to another very fine and rewarding set of choral songs.

Three shorter standalone works complete the programme. Louisa was commissioned to celebrate the 21st birthday of a young lady of that name and it sets Wordsworth’s poem, ‘Louisa’. It’s a charming and delicate piece which includes important soprano and tenor solos, both of them well taken here. This song is a delightful birthday gift. Antiphon for the Angels – which, oddly, bears a different title, Guardian Angel, on the composer’s website – was commissioned jointly by the violinist Rachel Podger and the vocal ensemble Voces8 – so, unsurprisingly, the choir is divided into eight parts. The violin acts as a foil to the choir, contrasting with the vocal textures but, at the same time, complementing them. I think it’s a very good piece and, in this performance, the pure violin tone of Gabriella Jones, an alumna of Trinity College, Cambridge, is a definite enhancement to the proceedings. Holy is the true light is another commissioned piece; in this case the commissioners were Nigel Short and Tenebrae for a concert exploring the theme of Remembrance. Owain Park has written an excellent and eloquent piece. The initial choral textures are light-suffused and just grow in intensity. The conclusion is particularly memorable. It’s based on a melodic fragment from Elgar’s ‘Nimrod’ and includes parts for four soloists, a separate – and distanced – quartet and the main choir. It’s both memorable and moving.

There’s some uncommonly interesting and skilfully composed music on this disc. Owain Park knows exactly how to exploit the resources of an expert choir yet, though his writing is ingenious and imaginative, not once does he ask his singers for any unusual vocal effects. This is pure singing from start to finish and I would imagine that whilst the music undoubtedly presents challenges to the performers it is also very rewarding to sing.

Owain Park has been uncommonly well served by Tim Reader and The Epiphoni Consort. The singing is consistently fine and impeccably disciplined. The choir’s sound is a pleasure to hear and their diction is crystal clear. The several soloists from withing the choir all acquit themselves very well. The excellent impression this choir made on me in their David Bednall disc is completely reinforced here. Paul Baxter has given them an ideal recording: the sound is expertly focused and clear. Nowhere is Baxter’s engineering skill shown to better advantage than in the magical yet crystal clear sound at the end of Holy is the true light.

All the pieces on this programme are receiving their first recordings. This very fine disc provides an excellent showcase for the significant talent of Owain Park and for the expert singing of The Epiphoni Consort.

John Quinn

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