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Sounds & Silence

David Vernier

Artistic Quality:

Sound Quality:

Silence is a highly underrated component of music. But to fully appreciate and understand–especially in the world of a cappella music–it’s necessary to focus on the moments of silence, the “spaces between the notes”, long or short, to notice the sound of the silence, which gives meaning to the sounds of notes and impetus to the rhythm. Of course not all composers are that interested in or adept at utilizing silence–and not all conductors are equally concerned with, or aware of, or capable of exploiting the dynamic, dramatic power of those silences. That’s not the case here, as composers, choir, and conductor truly get and effectively take advantage of the rests, the pauses, the breaths, as important to the expression of the texts as inflection, accent, and modulation of loud and soft.

For this program, conductor Paul McCreesh has chosen 15 secular a cappella pieces, generally categorized as “partsongs”, all from 20th-century British composers. Most are well-known, but a few–James MacMillan’s The Gallant Weaver; Jonathan Dove’s Who killed Cock Robin?; Peter Warlock’s All the Flowers of the Spring; Elgar’s Owls (An epitaph)–are rarely heard. All are significant and important examples of the genre–musically/stylistically influential, most of them substantial, whether original (Stanford’s The blue bird; Britten’s The evening primrose; Warlock’s All the flowers of the spring) or an arrangement of folksong (Vaughan Williams’ The turtle dove; Grainger’s The three ravens).

McCreesh, who admittedly is “a bit of an outsider” in the world of a cappella music (he identifies himself as “primarily an orchestral conductor”) has helmed a wide-ranging, and wildly varied legacy of recordings, from some of the absolute worst to several of the best, as a quick perusal of our archive will confirm. This one belongs in the superior category, and although McCreesh does take some credit for that–trying not to get in the way, as well as not hesitating to push his singers, occasionally taking a risk or trying something new–he also credits his “Rolls-Royce” of a choir. And these 20 singers really do make an exceptionally fine ensemble, capable of the most beautiful and sensitively sung rendition of Stanford’s The blue bird (which opens the program) you will hear anywhere, as well as delivering a thrilling and perfectly executed Who killed Cock Robin?, the longest (8-plus minutes) and perhaps most technically demanding piece on the disc.

Silence is nowhere more prominently featured than in Elgar’s very weird and wonderful Owls (what does Elgar’s text mean? Anything, or nothing?), and MacMillan’s setting of Robert Burns’ The Gallant Weaver (1995) is a surprisingly gorgeous, immediately engaging work from a composer who’s not always so engaging. The disc’s title comes from Vaughan Williams’ 1953 setting of a poem by his wife, Ursula Wood, utilizing a soaring, independent soprano line against colorful shifting, chromatic harmonies; the program ends, appropriately, with Rest, another piece from the same composer, its text by Christina Rossetti, a much earlier song (1902) that includes the line “silence more musical than any song…” Is that possible? Perhaps we only have to listen, and see.

Recording Details:

Album Title: Silence & Music

20th Century British Partsongs by Stanford, Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Howells, Grainger, Britten, Warlock, MacMillan, & Dove

    Gabrieli Consort, Paul McCreesh

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