Song More Silent New
Beamish The Lion and The Deera.
McDowall Ave Maris Stellab.
O¹Regan And There Was A Great Calmc.
Plowman Cries Like Silenced.
bAlexandra Stevenson, cdSophie Bevan (sopranos); dCarolyn Dobbin (mezzo); aMichael Chance (countertenor); dBen Johnson (tenor); dDawid Kimberg (baritone); Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir; dPortsmouth Grammar Junior School Choir; dChoristers of St Thomas¹s Cathedral, Portsmouth; London Mozart Players/Nicolae Moldoveanu.
Avie AV2147 (full price, 1 hour 6 minutes). English/ Latin texts and English translation included. Website www.avierecords.com Producer Rachel Smith. Engineer Ken Blair. Dates November 12th and 13th, 2007.
In the booklet accompanying this wonderful release, James Priory, Headmaster of Portsmouth Grammar, tells us something of his school’s history: that it is located in nineteenth-century barracks, on the very site of Richard the Lionheart¹s palace, in a Garrison City; that for centuries soldiers have been sent around the world from this site; that it¹s possible more pupils from the school lost their lives in the two World Wars than any other school of a similar size. In other words, there is much to remind one of conflicts past. Each year a new choral work is commissioned by Portsmouth Grammar School (PGS), in association with the London Mozart Players, for its Remembrance Sunday concert at St Thomas’s Cathedral, Portsmouth. The works on this disc are the results of four such commissions. All are, in their own way, both powerful and extremely moving ¬ as are the performances.
Cecilia McDowall’s style is direct and often, as here, conspicuously attractive. Ave Maris Stella for choir and strings was written for the 2001 Remembrance concert during McDowall¹s year as”composer not in residence” at PGS. Calm, mellifluous outer sections (the Ave Maris Stella proper) bookend a more energetic setting of Psalm 106/107, itself enfolded in part of Psalm 26/27, The Lord is my Light for soprano solo.
McDowall¹s work contrasts sharply with Lynne Plowman¹s unsettling Cries Like Silence for four soloists, chamber choir, children¹s choir and orchestra with organ. This 2006 commission juxtaposes two poems, e.e. cummings’s these children singing in stone and Ted Hughes¹s Crow¹s Account of the Battle. As Plowman says in the booklet commentary, the idea is to “create a tension between a poignant expression of innocence and a shocking description of the violent horrors of war”.
After the frank brutality of much of Cries Like Silence, Tarik O’Regan’s And There Was A Great Calm, commissioned in 2005, is a soothing balm with its beautiful string writing and luminous choral settings of texts by Gittelsohn, Milton, Rumi, Wordsworth and Hardy ¬ the latter part of the poem which gives the work its title and which was written in celebration of the signing of the Armistice on November 11th, 1918. O’Regan later incorporated Cries Like Silence into the three-movement Triptych (recently recorded by Conspirare on ŒThreshold of Night¹, reviewed in the September issue).
Bringing the disc to an end is Sally Beamish’s The Lion And The Deer, another 2006 commission. It¹s an extraordinary work, setting calligraphic shape-poems on various animals by Jila Peacock, which are in turn translations from the Persian by Divan e Hafez. Interspersed throughout are extracts from haikus written on the theme of war, both written and spoken by Year 7 pupils at PGS. The instrumentation includes prominent parts for solo trumpet, harp and cello.
All four works receive committed performances, the cross-generational teaming of the Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir and the London Mozart Players resulting in passionate, textured playing and singing. The vocal soloists are equally convincing, especially former PGS pupil Alexandra Stevenson (whose soprano solo in Ave Maris Stella beguiles with its grounded artlessness), soprano Sophie Bevan in And There Was A Great Calm and the ever-reliable Michael Chance in The Lion And The Deer.
With commentaries on each work mostly provided by the composers, and John Singer Sargent¹s famous Gassed adorning the cover, ŒA Song More Silent¹ is truly a memorial sung in stone: fixed and yet in so being allowed to vibrate through the ages.