Captivating Choral Music From Cambridge

Review by: David Vernier


Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

I’ve said this many times before, so I won’t mention the fact that many music listeners, even those whose primary interest is choral music, have an aversion–or at least a bit of a resistance–to recordings by children’s or youth choirs. And once again, I am suggesting a recording that said youth-choir-averse listeners should actually listen to. Yes, the disc title is a bit, shall we say, quaint (it comes from one of the Benjamin Britten songs), but the singing is anything but. It’s as professional and polished and engaging as you would expect to hear from, well, any professional choir; and while the music may be intended for treble voices, its sophistication, smartly selected texts, and clever craftsmanship lift these pieces to an unusually high level of artistic refinement and gratifying entertainment.

From the opening piece, Jonathan Dove’ s setting of Emily Dickinson’s It sounded as if the Streets were running, we know we’re in for an experience of both serious music and exceptional singing–Dove doesn’t simplify or compromise his very vivid expression of the text, not only the aspect of “running”, but the notion of “Awe–was all we could feel”. He continues these affecting and vocally challenging techniques in the other two of his Dickinson settings, ending with the unforgettable How happy is the little Stone (which appears later in another version by Sally Beamish).

And speaking of clever and captivating–Richard Rodney Bennett’s song collections The Insect World and The Aviary, with texts by some first-rate poets from the 17th to 19th centuries (John Clare, Andrew Marvell, Tennyson, Shelley, Coleridge), show what marvels can be done with superb melodies and perfectly conceived piano accompaniments–presented with lovely, ingratiating tone and expressive turns by the singers.

For me the pieces by Howard Skempton and Sally Beamish are not as effective or memorable–they just don’t seem as well suited to the treble choir, nor are they as skillful in their text setting. Nevertheless, they demand much from the singers–especially the Beamish pieces, whose difficulty will induce nods of admiration for the choir’s accomplishment. Britten’s song set Friday Afternoons, the composer’s take on 12 poems/nursery rhymes/children’s ditties–in turn humorous, lively, contemplative, dramatic–was written for singing classes at the school where his brother taught. Of course, it’s not great art, but these songs are infused with Britten’s wit and inventive piano parts–and what fun they are to sing! Don’t be afraid. You’ll like this.

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Recording Details:

Album Title: Sing Levy Dew

JONATHAN DOVE: It sounded as if the Streets were running
RICHARD RODNEY BENNETT: The Insect World; The Aviary
HOWARD SKEMPTON: Five Poems of Mary Webb
BENJAMIN BRITTEN: Friday Afternoons Op. 7

  • Frederick Brown (piano)
  • St. Catherine's Girls' Choir, Cambridge, Edward Wickham

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