A Walk With Ivor Gurney
Here’s a nourishing, thoughtfully compiled release from Signum, one of the keys to which can be found in some lines from one of Ivor Gurney’s late poems entitled ‘Gloucester Song’: ‘I walk the land my fathers knew, wide to distants blue / And summon all the tales unseen, the good earth lets them through.’ Commissioned by Tenebrae in 2013 and exquisitely laid out for mezzo-soprano and mixed choir, Judith Bingham’s A Walk with Ivor Gurney dovetails settings of passages from four Gurney poems with inscriptions on Roman tomb memorials found in Gloucestershire. The music effortlessly evokes (in the composer’s own words) ‘the sense Gurney had of time and people of the past residing in the landscape’. On this premiere recording, Sarah Connolly teams up with Tenebrae under Nigel Short’s watchful lead to give a performance of breathtaking composure, spine-tingling atmosphere and palpable conviction.
Connolly also excels in three Gurney songs: ‘In Flanders’ and ‘By a Bierside’ (an especially powerful rendering) are heard in Herbert Howells’s tasteful orchestrations, while Gerald Finzi’s arrangement of ‘Sleep’ (one of the Five Elizabethan Songs from 1913 14) was fashioned for a performance in 1949 by his Newbury String Players with the soprano Elsie Suddaby as soloist. (Some three decades earlier, the teenage Finzi had heard Suddaby sing it with his teacher Edward Bairstow, a revelatory experience which made him more determined than ever to become a composer.) Both Gurney’s 1925 motet for double choir Since I believe in God the Father Almighty and Howells’s sublime 1941 anthem Like as the hart likewise enjoy memorably poised, fervent advocacy.
More than half of the programme’s 87-minute duration is devoted to Vaughan Williams, launching with the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis – that toweringly original canvas which left such an indelible impression on Gurney and Howells when they first heard it in Gloucester Cathedral at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival. Short’s scrupulously prepared, shrewdly paced account with the Aurora Orchestra generates a most agreeable unanimity of purpose, dedication and passionate glow. He also masterminds admirable performances of Valiant for Truth (a 1941 a cappella setting of John Bunyan’s words for that eponymous character in The Pilgrim’s Progress) and the 1921 treatment of Psalm 90, Lord, thou hast been our refuge (which rousingly incorporates the hymn-tune ‘O God our help in ages past’). As for An Oxford Elegy (a 1949 adaptation of texts from Matthew Arnold’s ‘The Scholar Gipsy’ and ‘Thyrsis’ for narrator, chorus and orchestra), it’s hard not to be touched by the deep sincerity and sheer quality of inspiration that course through what annotator Philip Lancaster aptly describes as ‘a rich, Samuel Palmer-like description of an England-Eden; a vivid depiction of a midsummer idyll that is more a state of mind than a reality’. Expertly supported by Short’s combined choral and orchestral forces, Simon Callow delivers Arnold’s verse most sensitively, but his contribution is not as stylishly integrated into the whole as on, say, the incomparable John Westbrook’s extraordinarily moving 1969 collaboration with David Willcocks at the helm (where the closing pages convey a lump-in-the-throat emotion not readily matched here – EMI/Warner, 2/70).
Overall verdict? If the imaginative concept appeals, this is well worth seeking out.