I began my exploration of this new disc of music by Philip Wood with the short ‘Lonsdale Dance’ written for unaccompanied descant recorder. The work carries a subtitle ‘Champêtre’ which implies that a pastoral mood was intended. The ‘Lonsdale’ in question is located in Westmorland and was once described by John Ruskin as having ‘moorland hill, and sweet river and English forest foliage … at their best.’ The Dance, which is conceived in two contrasting sections was written to explore the resources of the recorder and display John Turner’s virtuosity: it succeeds on both counts. Lonsdale Dance’ is dedicated to Lady Caroline, the then Dowager Countess of Lonsdale.
I moved on to what is probably the most significant piece on this CD, the Concertino for recorder and string quartet. This work was composed some 15 years ago for the present players and was first performed at a Royal Northern College of Music concert in that year. The Concertino is in two movements — I could have wished for a third — and presents some involved passage-work for soloist and quartet. The opening movement is dark and lugubrious (muted strings) with reflective playing on the treble recorder. However, the second movement livens things up considerably with a change of instrument to descant recorder with spiky, aggressive music from all the players. There are some interesting tonal effects from the soloist. Altogether an enjoyable and approachable work that deserves a place in the concerted recorder repertoire.
I then chose to explore the ‘Five Spring Songs’ which are settings of a wide range of poets including W.E. Henley, Christina Rossetti, Henry Vaughan, George Peele and ‘Anon’. These were written in 2011 as a birthday gift for Wood’s composer friend Nicholas Marshall. The songs were designed to reflect ‘nature, birdsong and youth’ rather than ‘age and advancing years’. I enjoyed the interesting combination of recorder, cello and harpsichord supporting the stunning soprano voice of Lesley-Jane Rogers. These songs have no sense of ‘antique parody’, in fact, this particular ensemble has the effect of making them timeless. The choice of poems is imaginative: I especially relished Peele’s ‘When as the Eye’, with its ‘strawberries swimming in the cream …’ made famous in Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony .
The Partita for recorder and cello is a ‘pick and mix of character pieces’ composed once again for John Turner. The key elements of this suite are the evocations of dawn (Aubade) and nightfall (Nocturne). The one is ‘full of noises, strange sounds’ as the birds perform their reveille and the other is dark and introverted. The birds in this movement have something of the night about them. Other pieces include a short, doleful chaconne, a dynamic capriccio and a rumbustious ‘moto perpetuo’. The Partita was premiered in 2003 as a part of the Salford Mayfest.
The Two Motets were written for solo soprano with no accompaniment. They are settings of the well-loved liturgical texts ‘Ave verum corpus’ and ‘Ave Maria’. There is a simplicity here that is both moving and inspirational. They are beautifully sung by Lesley-Jane Rogers.
The CD opens with what is the most ‘substantial’ of the three song-cycles presented here. ‘Sonnets, Airs and Dances’ has six movements and is given the form of a masque or renaissance cantata. The singer is accompanied by the recorder and harpsichord. The verses chosen are diverse and include John Donne’s frankly depressing ‘O my blacke Soule’ which is presented in declamatory style with no accompaniment. This is followed by a quirky little forlane for instrumentalists alone. The mood is lightened by the anonymous ‘Come away, sweet Love’ for all the soloists and ‘Now is my Chloris fresh as May’. Once again, the mood changes with a charming ‘Sarabande’ for recorder and harpsichord. The ‘cantata’ closes with John Keats’ meditation on sleep, ‘O soft embalmer of the still midnight’. This is an important work that defies stylistic categorisation: it is ageless in its impact.
The Aria, Recitative and Rondo for counter-tenor and cello was expressly written for the fine counter-tenor James Bowman. Wood writes that they are ‘in essence three love songs and explore youthful love, sensual love and the more bawdy aspects of lust, respectively.’ It includes poems by Arnault Daniel, a 13 th century troubadour, a ‘Riddle’ by Adrian Mitchell and a bit of macaronic Latin by John O’Keefe. This significant work is ideally suited to Bowman’s fabulous voice.
A word about the composer. Philip Wood was born near Leeds in 1972 and studied Music and Drama in Northampton and later at Leeds University. In 2003, he was awarded a Ph.D. in composition. Over the years he has received many commissions for a wide variety of works including orchestral, choral, chamber and instrumental. Influences include ‘a passion for British music’ with ‘mainstream’ figures such as Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, William Walton and Malcolm Arnold. He also owes a debt to ‘lesser known names’ including William Alwyn, Bernard Stevens, Edmund Rubbra, Alan Rawsthorne and Arnold Cooke. A dominant influence on his word-setting is Benjamin Britten.
The liner-notes written by the composer are necessary reading and include details of each work. Texts of all the vocal numbers have been included. Brief notices are given of the musicians and Wood himself.
The sound quality of this Divine Art disc is clear and vibrant. The playing by all the performers is, as would be expected, absolutely splendid. Special commendation goes to John Turner’s superb recorder playing and Lesley-Jane Rogers’ delightful soprano voice.
Philip Wood indicates that this album is a ‘cross-section of songs and chamber music written over an eleven year period.’ Most of these pieces have been written as a ‘special gift’ or a ‘gesture of thanks or goodwill’. Perhaps the dominant figure in all this is ‘John Turner, [who] as well as his enthusiasm, encouragement and passion for music-making … has made this recording possible.’ It is a sentiment with which all listeners will readily concur.