On record – Skempton: Man and Bat, Piano Concerto & The Moon is Flashing (First Hand Records)

Howard Skempton
Eternity’s Sunrise (2003)
The Moon is Flashing (2007, arr. 2018)
Piano Concerto (2015, arr. 2018)
Man and Bat (2017)

James Gilchrist (tenor, The Moon is Flashing); Roderick Williams (baritone, Man and Bat); Tim Horton (piano, Piano Concerto); Ensemble 360

First Hand Records FHR90 [70’25”]

English texts included
Producer Tim Oldham
Engineer Phil Rowlands

Recorded 20 July 2019 at Upper Chapel, Sheffield (Man and Bat), 5-7 February 2019 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London (others)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A welcome addition to the recorded representation of Howard Skempton (b1947), including two pieces specially arranged by the composer for reduced forces and also two pieces written specifically for ensemble, all performed by artists closely associated with Skempton’s music.

What’s the music like?

Vocal writing has been a mainstay of Skempton’s in over recent years, the two largest pieces here setting poems by D.H. Lawrence. The term ‘setting’ is used advisedly, given Skempton’s approach is not one of expressive interpretation; rather one in which those individual words articulate a vocal line which, in its turn, articulates the instrumental writing so as to provide context.

Such is the premise on which Man and Bat operates – Lawrence’s highly descriptive, indeed discursive poem treated as a formal framework around which the ensemble unfolds a dialogue of constantly varying (not necessarily developing) motifs and phrases as provide an aural equivalent to what is being described. A not dissimilar approach is pursued in Snake, but here the musical treatment is audibly more static as befits a poem centred upon thought rather than action. This provides the concluding stage in a triptych preceded by a setting of Chris Newman’s self-deprecating A Day in 3 Wipes then, before it, the quizzical humour of Skempton’s own The Moon is Flashing which affords this diverse cycle its overall title.

The other two pieces are both instrumental, while being highly differentiated in themselves. Skempton has used generic titles only sparingly, his Piano Concerto predictable only in its avoidance of obvious models or precursors – the five movements (each lasting between two and four minutes) amounting to a series of vignettes in which the soloist variously combines with the ensemble, here a string quartet rather than string orchestra as originally conceived. Its title might suggest a natural piece with which to open, but Eternity’s Sunrise also makes for a persuasive rounding-off – a perfectly proportioned entity which amounts to a sequence of variations on an undulating theme apposite to the lines from William Blake that provided inspiration. Once again, Skempton’s writing is affecting through its sheer self-effacement.

Does it all work?

Very much so. From an output dominated by miniatures for the piano or accordion (his own instrument), Skempton has amassed a sizable and ever more varied catalogue from which the present release offers a judicious selection. It helps when the performances are so responsive to those qualities of emotional restraint and attention to detail that define the essence of this music. Roderick Williams and James Gilchrist can be relied upon for unforced insight, as too can the underrated pianist Tim Horton and the grouping of soloists which is Ensemble 360.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Skempton now enjoys a substantial discography which features a number of releases devoted to his music (most notably those on the NMC label), to which should now be added this latest from the always enterprising First Hand Records. The sound has all the focus and detail necessary with this composer, whose succinctly informative notes on each piece are complemented by anecdotal observations from each of the soloists. Those who are new to Skempton will find this an ideal way into his compositional ethos, where little is as it seems.

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Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Presto website

Under the surface – Parry: English Lyrics

parry

Composer: Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)

Nationality: English

What did he write? One composition springs to mind when you think of Parry – for the hymn Jerusalem is heard at many a national occasion. Beyond the Last Night of the Proms his choral anthems are also revered, with I Was Glad and Blest Pair of Sirens two of the most popular. Beyond that there are five symphonies and a number of orchestral and chamber works.

What are the works on this new recording? Although his choral works are often heard, Parry’s songs are a relatively rare breed. Promisingly, this is billed as volume one of the English Lyrics, a massive collection in twelve volumes that the composer wrote between around 1885 and 1920. The 31 songs on this new recording include 26 from the English Lyrics but finish with five settings of Shakespeare.

What is the music like? The disc takes in many moods, and although it flits around the different volumes of English Lyrics it is very well structured in this collection. Parry’s setting of Shelley’s Good Night is an early high point, Susan Gritton slightly husky in her description of nocturnal, and this is followed by the refrain ‘Soft shall be his pillow’ in Sir Walter Scott’s Where shall the lover rest, Gritton controlling the vibrato on her top ‘G’ with impressive precision.

There are some very popular texts in these Parry settings, and Roderick Williams handles O Mistress Mine and Take, O take those lips away with unfussy poise. On the other hand there are tiny trifles such as Julia, where the baritone introduces a touch of mischief. Meanwhile Gilchrist is especially effective in the anonymous text Weep you no more, a lovely piece of consolation. Andrew West is a sensitive picture painter alongside the three singers, introducing When icicles hang by the wall with chilly detachment and accompanying Williams in On a time the amorous Silvy with an instinctive sense of when to push on and when to hang back.

What’s the verdict? Somm have put together an enterprising release that unites some of the best English singers around, with pianist Andrew West joined by Susan Gritton (soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor) and Roderick Williams (baritone). It is a nice and effective contrast to move between the male and female voices, and it helps that the words are sung so clearly.

Give this a try if you like… Brahms, Schumann or Vaughan Williams songs

Listen

You can listen to Good night, sung by Susan Gritton, here