The Metier label continues to provide a fine service to little heard British music and this is yet another enterprising release coupling well-known names with the less familiar. The works have strong links with the performers featured here (certainly the Leighton, Beamish, Williams and Johnson were premiered by Alison Wells, John Turner and his ensemble) whilst the Harper was written in memory of Leighton and David Johnson’s work in response to the premiere of Leighton’s Animal Heaven. There is still shamefully little of Kenneth Leighton’s orchestral and chamber music available on disc (surely an opportunity for a progressive label here!) although it is pleasing to see that gradually his choral music in particular is receiving attention. This performance of Animal Heaven is therefore most welcome and certainly for this listener, the highlight of the disc. In the form of a diptych, the two songs set poetry by Walt Whitman (taken from Song of Myself) and the contemporary writer (also American) James Dickey. It is a typically thoughtful work with an equally typical underlying spirituality, dealing with the “innocence of animals and their place in creation (a theme that David Johnson explores in a very different way in his work, God, Man and the Animals). Both songs feature long instrumental introductions, the first predominantly contemplative in nature until a sudden change of tempo transforms the mood, the second almost dance like in character again preceded by a slow introduction and revisiting material from the first song as it approaches its conclusion. The quality and originality of Leighton’s melodic and harmonic invention is evident from the very opening bars and the performances do the music justice in every way.
Edward Harper’s Lights Out is the most immediately serious work on the disc, Edward Thomas’ deeply felt and intensely personal war inspired poetry prompting an equally deeply felt response from the composer. The outer two songs, The Trumpet and Lights Out, are both responses to the regular trumpet calls, which Thomas heard at Trowbridge Barracks although each of these songs receives very different treatment by Harper. The opening call to attention cleverly exploits simple arpeggios in the voice (based on the harmonics of the trumpet call “Reveille”) set against a variety of instrumental textures and harmonic contrasts, whilst Lights Out is a contemplative and moving passacaglia, a profound conclusion to the cycle. Between these, The Ash Grove is a fantasy on the folk tune of the same name, the well-known tune making itself heard at the end of the song on the recorder. By contrast The Wind’s Song transforms itself following an introspective opening, into a breathless sound picture of the wind “blowing the pine boughs among”.
Despite their brevity I was very much taken with Sally Beamish’s Four Findrinny Songs, each of them a tiny golden nugget of inspiration (appropriate perhaps as Beamish tells us that Findrinny is an alloy of silver and gold). Scored for soprano and recorder, the longest of these songs (Grey Seal) comes in at only 2:23 yet each has something to say, speaking in a characteristically directly manner. The words are by a Scottish poet, Donald Goodbrand Saunders, with whom Beamish has since collaborated again, and the music is heavily imbued with, as the composer puts it, “Scottish overtones”, including a highly effective imitation of the sound of a Grey Seal on recorder!
The remaining works by Lyell Cresswell, Roger Williams and David Johnson are perhaps less memorable in their originality than the other works presented although all are well written and deserve to be heard. New Zealand born Cresswell’s brief yet haunting Prayer to appease the Spirit of the Land is based on a Maori prayer and forms a tribute to the memory of the soprano Tracey Chadwell. Edward Lear’s verse needs no introduction and Roger Williams’ fleeting settings of three of his limericks coupled with an anonymous Scottish lullaby are both amusing and effective. David Johnson wrote God, Man and the Animals as a present for John Turner and his ensemble following their premiere of Leighton’s Animal Heaven, the work being based on the Grimm fairy- tale Die Lebensdauer, a tongue in cheek, yet darkly moralistic tale of man’s greedy request for eternal life during God’s creation of the animal world. Johnson makes good use of the scope for characterisation given by the tale, creating a kind of opera for one singer and weaving an imaginative instrumental accompaniment to the soprano’s somewhat anglicised text.
All of these works are given strong, highly committed performances by John Turner and his ensemble, with Alison Wells being worthy of particular praise for her confident vocal delivery. The recording is well focused and natural. I very much hope that Metier and the same artists have more in store for us in the future.