Sunday 26 June 2016

An exceptionally fine disc from Signum Classics of choral works by Bernard Hughes that are innovative, melodic and always engaging

British composer Bernard Hughes (b.1974) studied Music at St Catherine’s College, Oxford before going on to Goldsmiths College, London to study composition under Peter Dickinson and privately with Param Vir. He was awarded a PhD in Composition from Royal Holloway College, London, studying with Philip Cashian. Bernard Hughes is Composer-in-Residence at St Paul’s Girls’ School in London.

Bernard Hughes’s music has been broadcast on Radio 3 and King FM in Seattle, and he has appeared as a conductor on the Channel 4 series Howard Goodall’s Twentieth Century Greats. Bernard writes regularly in the new music periodical Tempo and for theartsdesk cultural review website.

He has been commissioned by the BBC Singers, the Crouch End Festival Chorus, W11 Opera in London and the pianist Jakob Fichert receiving performances at the Huddersfield, Spitalfields and Bangor New Music Festivals and at venues including Coventry Cathedral and Symphony Hall, Birmingham.

Recent commissions include a new work for the Seattle Pro Music choir and All Across this Jumbl’d Earth for the Three Choirs Festival, both in 2012. A new piece for the experimental vocal trio Juice was premiered at the National Portrait Gallery in 2014 and Salve Regina, for the Crouch End Festival Chorus.

Bernard Hughes’s music has been performed at major venues in Britain and abroad and received a number of broadcasts on BBC Radio 3. He was runner-up at the 2009 British Composer Awards for the choral work The Death of Balder, commissioned and performed by the BBC Singers.

The BBC Singers have recorded The Death of Balder for Signum Classics on a new release that brings together a number of choral works by Bernard Hughes entitled I Am The Song. The BBC Singers  are conducted by Paul Brough


The Two Choral Fanfares were composed in 2010 and 2011 and are intended as short concert openers, setting poems by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) and Charles Causley (1917-2003). The BBC Singers bring terrific energy to Everyone Sang, weaving some fine textures in this very effective and uplifting setting in which the choir vocalise as the work finds its gentle coda. I Am the Song, the title work of this disc, is equally buoyant, this time with a rhythmic pulse to which this choir bring some fine subtleties, weaving some very fine choral sounds.  

Three Swans opens with The Bereaved Swan, a lovely setting of a text by English poet and novelist, Stevie Smith (1902-1971) where Hughes provides the BBC Singers with some exquisite harmonies that rise gently, out of which appears a solo soprano voice.

The words of The Silver Swan are taken from a madrigal by Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). It rises up with more power, these singers again finding many subtleties in their finely controlled phrasing and dynamics, later bringing a terrific falling and rising section that brings a sudden end.

Riddle takes its text from 10th century The Exeter Book, also known as the Codex Exoniensis, an anthology of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Hushed chanting is soon overlaid by a firmer choral line with lovely subtly shifting harmonies. Later there are some choral surges with this choir bringing real strength, finding all of Hughes’ lovely little details before a wonderfully controlled hushed coda.

The winter It Is past was written in 2014 and is a setting of a short poem by Robert Burns (1759-1796) reflecting on the passing of the seasons. Female voices introduce this piece, bringing a lovely atmosphere, showing how this composer can create an immediate sense of place and time. Male voices join to repeat the opening before weaving around each other. It is the female voices alone that take the music to its lovely hushed end.

The Death of Balder is based on a Norse myth re-told by the distinguished novelist and scholar Kevin Crossley-Holland . In two acts with a prologue and interlude, it has a prominent part for narrator. The individual members of the BBC Singers that feature in solo roles are Elizabeth Poole (soprano, Frigg), Olivia Robinson (soprano, Thokk), Rebecca Lodge (mezzo-soprano, Hel), Cherith Milburn-Fryer (alto, Old Woman), Edward Goater (tenor, Balder), Stephen Jeffes (tenor, Hermod), Robert Johnston (tenor, Hod), Charles Gibbs (bass, Narrator) and Edward Price (bass, Loki).

The work opens with a short spoken Prologue over which bass Charles Gibbs says ‘Hail to the speaker and to him who listens’ followed by a descending sung choral section that leads into the first act.

The narrator continues his narration in Act One over a hushed choral layer. Soon the chorus take a lovely flowing theme with the words ‘Fire swore an oath. Water swore an oath.’ The narrator continues over the choir through some finely characterised passages for individual singers and rising in power for Loki’s ‘I am Loki Sly, subtle sorcerer …’ Hughes’ idiom here is more advanced yet always holding a melodic line, however unusual the characterisations. The part of the Old Woman taken by alto Cherith Milburn-Fryer is particularly remarkable bringing out much character. There is some really finely shaped singing, rising chorally before the narrator returns for ‘Frigg looked around but the old woman was gone…’ 

The choir weave some very fine moments around the individual voices creating a fine atmosphere in ‘Eyes on fire. Body on fire. Evil was in him.’ as they chant in hushed voices. On the death of Balder the choir bring a wonderfully conceived contrast, a wordless crying of grief, superbly done by the BBC Singers, reaching moments of extreme emotion. Soprano Elizabeth Poole as Frigg unfolds a very fine ‘Does anyone here…? Will anyone…?’ superbly controlled, finding so many subtleties. Tenor Stephen Jeffes as Hermod rises magnificently in ‘I will …I am Hermod, son of Odin’ before the narrator takes us on into the Interlude where the mourning gods and goddesses bring a lovely gentle flowing line, a sensitively done funeral scene.

The narrator takes us into the underworld for Act Two where Hermod tries to negotiate with Hel for Baldr’s return. The choir are magnificent in the wild and strange ‘Ah! Help me! Save me! Pity me!’ before a remarkably done ‘Who…? you…want…here?’ from Hel from mezzo-soprano Rebecca Lodge. The subsequent choral writing for the character of Hel is terrific. There is a beautiful section for choir ‘Weep for Balder’ but Thokk, sung by soprano Olivia Robinson, believed to be Hel in disguise, has no concern for Balder’s fate ‘I will weep no tears for Balder…’ The precision between choir and narrator is truly remarkable. There is a strong ‘Hail to those who listen’ from the narrator that leads to a sustained ‘Ah’ from the choir at the end.

This is a remarkable and significant work that deserves to be heard. The BBC Singers and particularly the individual voices that are featured are tremendous.

The BBC Singers bring a mellifluous harmony to anyone lived in a pretty how town (2011) before adding little dynamic emphases in this finely shaped performance of a setting of a text by the poet E. E. Cummings (1894-1962). Soloists rise out of the opening through some very fine passages that gain in strength.

Revelation Window commissioned by the Seattle based choir The Esoterics in 2010 takes as its inspiration the 1995 stained glass window of the same name in Manchester Cathedral. It uses a wordless text where syllables reflect the words ‘light, ‘colour’ and ‘revelation.’ Revelation Window is arguably the most remarkable and finely written piece on this disc. The choir bring some stunningly brilliant weaving of the wordless text, rising through some finely glowing passages, this choir bringing much subtlety to the varied dynamics. There are subtly shifting harmonies, textures and colours and later a passage where the points of light are seemingly pointed up before rising upwards to an exhilarating coda. A terrific work.

A Medieval Bestiary (2011) explores man’s relationship with animals and takes its text from a 13th century bestiary in the Bodleian library, Oxford. Again there are soloists drawn from the BBC Singers, Olivia Robinson (soprano), Elizabeth Poole (soprano), Margaret Cameron (mezzo-soprano), Stephen Jeffes (tenor), Simon Grant (bass) and Edward Price (bass).In ten sections A Medieval Bestiary opens with a Prologue where the BBC Singers sound out wonderfully in ‘Beasts of the Land …’ Tenor Stephen Jeffes in ‘Adam being the first man, gave to all living beings a name…’ is very fine, around which the choir sing. There is some remarkable choral writing as the names of the beasts are listed, rising to a pitch of swirling choral sound.

The Beasts of the Land brings a spoken section around which the choir keep a hushed wordless line as the spoken animal descriptions are woven effectively.  

The Panther is introduced by a quiet, gentle reflection on the world ‘Panther’ before male voices join to lead forward arriving at some very fine passages for mixed choir to which, later, a soprano brings a lovely line around the choir.

A soprano opens First Sermon before the choir bring a lovely contribution, gently rising and falling with tenors of the choir taking a separate line.

There is an equally gentle choral opening to The Beasts of the Water. Again Hughes shows how well he can evoke a particular quality, here beneath the sea as a female narrator describes the scene over the choral background.

With The Whale deep male voices slowly emerge before the mezzo Margaret Cameron rises in this remarkably fine section. The music rises to create the immensity of the creature with, later, a more dramatic passage on the words ‘Hungry, the warden of the ocean…’ The way Hughes lets female voices blossom out of the lower male textures is very fine before a very evocative coda.

Mezzo-soprano, Margaret Cameron introduces the Second Sermon ‘So you, O man, the eyes of whose heart are darkened…’ before the choir takes the text gently ahead.

In The Beasts of the Air the choir bring passages of changing dynamics and tempi as they soar around creating a feeling of space and freedom.

The Phoenix has a gentle, flowing opening, almost a languid beauty before tenor, Stephen Jeffes appears with ‘When the scorching sun/Looks across the world …’ before finding more drama and energy. The music falls for a soprano to sing ‘In time its corpse grows cold …’ rising slowly again for chorus with ‘In the ashes of the pyre…’ rising to a terrific overlay of choral textures to the coda.

Third Sermon a soprano weaves and soars around a chanting chorus in the most effective final part – before a tenor join sings ‘O man, make your …’ over a hushed held note for choir – and a soprano rises in the coda

This is an exceptionally fine disc. Bernard Hughes’ choral writing is innovative, melodic and always engaging.  He could not have finer advocates for his choral music. I haven’t heard the BBC Singers in finer voice than they are here. 

They receive a first rate recording from the BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London, England and excellent booklet notes from the composer as well as full English texts (except for anyone lived in a pretty how town due to copyright restrictions). 

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