Tuesday 4 June 2013

Remarkably fine songs by Stephen McNeff in some superb performances by Clare McCaldin on a new release from Champs Hill Records

The British composer Stephen McNeff (b.1951) www.stephenmcneff.co.uk was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in Wales.  He studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and undertook post-graduate work at the University of Exeter.  After working in theatres throughout Britain including Associate Director at the University of Manchester’s Contact Theatre, he became Composer in Residence for the newly-formed Music Theatre Ensemble at the Banff Centre in Canada writing a number of works before becoming artistic director of Comus Music Theatre in Toronto. His opera The Secret Garden won a Mavor Moore Award. 

On his return to Britain he won a Scotsman Award at the Edinburgh Festival for his opera Aesop, written with his long-time collaborator, the Cornish poet Charles Causley www.charlescausleysociety.org .  As his reputation grew in England his work was performed in major concert halls like the newly opened Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, but it was his quirky take on T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, presented operatically as a film noir thriller , that caught the attention of the London critics at the 1994 Covent Garden Festival.

McNeff went on to write a number of other music theatre works including Matins for the Virgin of Guadalupe. In 2004 his opera Clockwork, based on the book by Philip Pullman www.philip-pullman.com was a major success at the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.  The Royal Opera House commissioned him to write Gentle Giant, a work from the book by Michael Morpurgo www.michaelmorpurgo.com  which has been revived twice and is in the ROH repertoire. In 2007 he won the British Composer Award for his opera, Tarka the Otter.

Despite a focus on opera and music for the theatre and voice he has written important instrumental pieces, including a Cello Sonata, a Piano Quintet and a large number of works for wind ensembles.  In 2005 he became Composer in Residence with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra where principal conductor Marin Alsop gave premieres of three new symphonic works, Heiligenstadt, Secret Destinations and the Sinfonia all recorded by Dutton Vocalion www.duttonvocalion.co.uk . Other works for the BSO included Weathers for chorus and orchestra (based on the poems of Thomas Hardy), and Echoes and Reflections, premiered by Yan Pascal Tortelier.   He also completed works for the BSO’s new music ensemble Kokoro, notably LUX and Counting 1 and 2.

In 2008 he wrote Near Avalon for the Ulster Orchestra and Choir (commissioned by the BBC) and recent works include the ConcertO Duo, (a double percussion concerto for the O Duo) commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Borletti Buitoni Trust. 

A Voice of One Delight was premiered at the Presteigne Festival and in London in December 2010 and is one of the works included on a new release from Champs Hill Records www.champshillrecords.co.uk featuring some of McNeff’s works for voice with various instrumental ensembles. Mezzo soprano, Clare McCaldin www.claremccaldin.com  is joined by Andrew West (piano) www.ram.ac.uk/find-people?pid=220 and members of the Orchestra Nova Ensemble www.novamusic.org.uk  conducted by George Vass  www.georgevass.co.uk

Madrigali Dell’Estate is a large song cycle, setting eleven poems by the Italian poet, Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938) www.gabrieledannunzio.net  and commissioned by Clare McCaldin with support from the RVW Trust.

Implorazione (Supplication) has a striking opening for the mezzo-soprano before Andrew West (piano) enters in some florid writing. Mezzo Clare McCaldin shows great sensitivity and passion in this setting of a subtly erotic text. La sabbia del Tempo (The Sands of Time) is a lovely setting with McCaldin providing a warmth that is most suitable for the text. L’orma (The footprint) opens with the piano in a more sombre mood before the mezzo enters. McCaldin is so flexible, following the line of the music so well. The piano writing is extremely effective particularly as played by Andrew West. There is a lively piano opening to All’alba (At dawn), with McCaldin entering to a skittish little piano motif. This is a difficult setting, wonderfully sung, with McCaldin following the various mood changes so well.

McCaldin opens alone in A mezzodi (At midday) and, when the piano enters, it is with discords. There is some fine singing, controlled and flexible, powerful in the climaxes. In sul vespero (Towards evening) opens with rapid piano phrases in which the mezzo joins, the music scurrying around. There is a gentle piano opening to L’incanto circeo (Cirecean enchantment), creating, as McNeff seems to always do, an atmosphere for the piece. Again Clare McCaldin is just right in this setting that speaks of ‘dead calm’ and ‘calm water’ with the piano just creating a slight sway of the waves – great playing with some lovely sounds.

Il vento scrive (The wind writes) has a light rippling piano opening before the mezzo enters alone in a setting that would be a test of any mezzo’s voice. McCaldin is superb with wonderful control and accuracy. Eventually the music settles with more gentle rippling piano sounds. McCaldin’s upper mezzo range is terrific. Le lampade marine (Sea Lanterns) opens quietly with the piano reflecting on the mood before the mezzo gently enters on the words ‘The jelly fish are luminous like dim lanterns…’ in such an evocative setting. This is a quite wonderful song, superbly performed by Clare McCaldin and Andrew West. McCaldin opens Nella belletta (In the slime) with a forceful, angry voice with quiet piano accompaniment, before settling to an intense, emotional performance with more fine singing, falling to sprechgesang at the end. There is a delicate piano opening to L’uva greca (The Grecian grape) and, when the mezzo enters, a feeling of Mediterranean warmth, slightly sultry. This is a fine conclusion to this cycle of songs.

Farfalle di Neve (Butterflies like snowflakes) for mezzo soprano and string trio was the first work written by Stephen McNeff with Clare McCaldin’s voice especially in mind. Another setting of words by Gabriele d’Annunzio, it was first performed at the Royal Opera House by Clare McCaldin in 2007. Dissonant strings open quietly before a melody slowly appears from out of the rising and falling motif of the strings in a most effective piece. The mezzo enters to this melody with the instrumentalists providing an intricate accompaniment. McCaldin again shows her wonderful flexibility in this lovely setting. There is superb playing from the string trio, Philippa Mo (violin), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola) and Jonathan Byers (cello). This is a lovely setting.

A Voice of One Delight for flute, viola and harp sets texts by Shelley combining quasi recitative and spoken narration. The spoken text is taken from Edward John Trelawny’s (1792-1881) eye witness account of the recovery of Shelley’s body and subsequent cremation after drowning while sailing back from Livorno to Lerici, Italy.

Part 1 Livorno 1 opens slowly with the harp which is soon joined by the flute, then viola in this quiet introduction. Harp and pizzicato viola accompany the mezzo soprano when she enters. McCaldin gives a virtuosic performance of this moody setting.  The spoken text, with instrumental accompaniment, appears between verses one and two and between verses three and four. There is some terrific playing from the instrumentalists, Kathryn Thomas (flute), Sarah-Jane Bradley (viola) and Suzanne Willison-Kawalec (harp) who, with McCaldin, point up every feeling and nuance of the text.

Part 2 Livorno 2 is a gentler setting with lovely flute accompaniment. The range of McCaldin’s voice is exceptional throughout. There is spoken text between verses two and three with a most effective instrumental accompaniment. Part 3 Lerici opens with plucked strings flowed by the flute as the mezzo enters in this restless setting. There is some fine instrumental writing particularly accompanying the spoken text between verses two and three.

Part 4 Via Reggio includes a telling account of the finding of Shelley’s mutilated body on the beach. There is a spare instrumental accompaniment to the spoken text before a gentle setting of ‘The keen stars were twinkling, And the fair moon rising among them.’ follows, as if countering the trauma of the preceding text. There is a lovely instrumental accompaniment, wonderfully evocative. There are spoken texts between verses two and three and towards the end that are really rather poignant.

Three Abruzzo Folk Songs, written in 2012, to act as a coda to the other Italian songs on this disc, were conceived after seeing a family group sitting outdoors after dark on a summer evening in Gabriele d’Annunzio’s home region of Abruzzo .

For solo mezzo soprano, these songs open with Lu Sant’Antoine (Saint Anthony) with a tremendous performance from Clare McCaldin, again so flexible, rich and warm, with a terrific range. Tutte li fundanelle (All the springs) has a gentler second verse, a lovely setting of the words ‘My love, I’m thirsty, so very thirsty’. La fija me (My daughter) allows no hiding place for the soloist in this demanding setting with superbly accomplished singing from McCaldin.

There are some remarkably fine songs on this disc, performed beautifully, so much so that I want to hear more of both Stephen McNeff and Clare McCaldin.

The recording made in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, England is spot on. There are excellent booklet notes together with full texts and translations.

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