Sunday, 2 October 2016

Paul Spicer directs some very fine performances with the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir on a new disc from Somm, entitled English Visionaries, achieving quite wonderfully affecting results

The Birmingham Conservatoire is the distinguished centre of professional training of musicians in the English Midlands. It benefits greatly from being part of the Birmingham City University and from the huge resources which such an organization can offer. Paul Spicer is the Principal Conductor of the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, a highly auditioned group of twenty-five student singers that form an expert and flexible group.

Paul Spicer began his musical training as a chorister at New College, Oxford before studying with Herbert Howells and Richard Popplewell at the Royal College of Music in London. He is best known as a choral conductor, directing the Finzi Singers and Bach Choirs in Chester and Leicester before moving to conduct the Bach Choir in Birmingham in 1992. He also conducts the Whitehall Choir in London and is Conductor of the Petersfield Musical Festival.

He has taught at the Royal College of Music and now teaches choral conducting at the Birmingham Conservatoire and at Oxford and Durham Universities. He was Senior Producer for BBC Radio 3 in the Midlands until 1990 and today is in considerable demand as a composer. He has also been a much sought-after recording producer. Paul Spicer's highly acclaimed biography of his composition teacher, Herbert Howells, was published in August 1998 and his full-scale biography of the composer Sir George Dyson was published by Boydell Press in 2014. He visits the USA most years as a visiting lecturer and conductor at the University of South Carolina and Trinity Cathedral, Columbia.

Paul Spicer is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, an Honorary Research Fellow of Birmingham University, an Honorary Fellow of University College, Durham, an Honorary Fellow of Birmingham Conservatoire, Honorary Fellow of Victoria College of Music and Drama (London), Lay Member of Lichfield Cathedral Chapter, Trustee of the Gerald Finzi Trust, Chairman of the Sir George Dyson Trust, Vice-President of the Herbert Howells Society, and Visiting Fellow to the Loughborough Endowed Schools.

The latest release from Somm Recordings with Paul Spicer  directing the Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir  entitled English Visionaries, features works by Vaughan Williams, Holst and Herbert Howells.


Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) took as his text for A Vision of Aeroplanes (1956) verses from Ezekial, Chapter 1, opening with ‘I looked, and, behold, a whirlwind came out of the north, a great cloud…’ stretching somewhat the descriptions contained therein to arrive at the title of his work. Here organist, Nicholas Morris delivers a dramatic opening to which the choir bring a dramatic, very strong sound, weaving Vaughan Williams’ choral lines very finely. They rise through some very fine passages with a particularly lovely solo from Victoria Adams. Occasionally they reveal hints of the composer’s Pilgrims Progress of just a few years earlier.

Vaughan Williams’ Prayer to the Father of Heaven (1947) reveals the forward looking ideas that the composer was pursuing with adventurous harmonies in this distinctive setting of John Skelton’s verse.

The inspiration of Tudor music that lay behind Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor (1922) didn’t prevent the composer from reaching forward stylistically. It was written for R. R. Terry, the director of music at Westminster Cathedral, who was reviving English Tudor composers. The choir weaves some lovely lines in the Kyrie with notable solos from Elizabeth Adams, Nicola Starkie, David Emerson and William Gee. They bring a certain gentle quality that is rather affecting. In the Gloria they bring a greater strength and forward moving passion, with some finely done rhythmic moments. The Credo brings some well controlled, varying dynamics and tempi as well as some quite exquisite hushed moments. The female voices bring a lovely opening to the Sanctus, rising through some vibrant passages with a particularly fine soprano solo from Elizabeth Adams, opening to the Benedictus to which gentle female voices join. They bring a lovely weaving of individual voices before a particularly fine Agnus Dei, again with a beautifully gentle touch, rising in strength at times before a beautifully shaped, gentle conclusion.

Gustav Holst’s (1874-1934) The Evening Watch comes from his Two Motets, Op. 43 (1924/25) and sets verses by Henry Vaughan (1621-1695). It was found too modern for the audience at its first performance. Now we can listen to its remarkable harmonies and transcendental quality with different ears as, after the fine opening from tenor, Richard James the choir enters bringing very fine textures and harmonies. Alto, Eloise Waterhouse adds a fine solo that preceded a wonderfully controlled hushed choral passage before rising through some terrific harmonies to a peak.

The choir bring a fine directness to Holst’s Sing me the Men (1925) with a text by Digby Mackworth-Dolben (1848-1867), yet still manage to reveal Holst’s adventurous harmonies. Later there is some unusual part writing that is so distinctively Holst, recalling moments in the Planets, and some fine moments for the basses before a quiet gentle end.

Paul Spicer has recorded Herbert Howells’ (1894-1983) The House of the Mind (1954) once before with the Finzi Singers. How good it is to have it here, again so wonderfully sung. It was written around the time of Howells’ great Missa Sabrinensis and sets verses by Joseph Beaumont (1616-1699). Organist, Nicholas Morris opens the work and, when the choir enters, the music could be by no one else with typically Howellsian phrases and intervals. The fine control of this choir lets this quite wonderful work unfold beautifully, through some exhilaratingly uplifting passages with the organist adding some exquisitely shaped passages. This is a quite wonderful performance of a very lovely work – truly visionary.

The choir return to Vaughan Williams to end their disc with his Lord, Thou hast been our refuge (1922) a setting of a paraphrase by Isaac Watts (1674-1748) of Psalm 90. The choir finds a very fine, gentle flow with wonderful phrasing, allowing this wonderful setting to develop through its rises and falls. Vaughan Williams uses occasional plainchant to add to the flavour of this piece. There is always a sense of underlying restraint. Later the organ appears, rising up with the choir, sounding out before the solo trumpet of Jonathan Sheppard appears and the choir find a brilliance and strength. This is some of Vaughan Williams’ finest choral writing.

Paul Spicer directs some very fine performances, achieving often quite wonderfully affecting results. For those seeking just Vaughan Williams’ Mass in G minor there is some stiff competition but overall there is some wonderful music making here. 

The recording from St. Alban the Martyr, Highgate, Birmingham, UK is excellent and there are useful notes together with full English and Latin texts and translation.

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