HURD Choral Works and Solo Songs
Hats off to Lyrita for this second helping of choral offerings by Gloucester-born Michael Hurd (1928-2006), a much-loved scholar, lecturer, conductor and composer, whose extensive catalogue evinces an instinctive gift for word-setting, communicative spark and abundant practicality that make his music such a joy to perform for amateurs and professionals alike.
Anyone who invested in last year’s delightful first volume featuring the Vasari Singers under Jeremy Backhouse can attest to the impeccable workmanship and considerable staying-power of such gems as the Missa brevis (1966), Merciles Beaute (1980, three rondels after Chaucer), A Parley of Owls (1987), Night Songs of Edward Thomas (1990), Five Spiritual Songs (1995) and A Secular Anthem (1997, to words by Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell). This newcomer’s contents comprise five items spanning 25 years, the earliest being A Song for St Cecilia (1966), an immensely likeable setting of John Dryden’s 1687 ode. Two years later came the serenade Music’s Praise, a sequence of four comparably approachable settings for mixed chorus and string orchestra of (among others) Alexander Pope’s ‘Ode for Musick, on St Cecilia’s Day’, Shakespeare’s ‘Orpheus with his lute’ and Robert Herrick’s ‘To Music, to Becalm his Fever’. It’s a lovely piece, with occasional stylistic nods towards Finzi – and, at one point, even a hint of Stravinsky’s Apollon musagète.
Mezzo-soprano Marta Fontanals-Simmons shines in The Phoenix and the Turtle, a 1974 treatment of Shakespeare’s metaphysical poem as durable as it is engaging. Completed that same year, This Day to Man bears the subtitle of ‘Six Hymns to the Nativity’ and sets texts by five relatively little-known poets from the 16th and 17th centuries: both No 4 (‘Fairest of morning lights appear’ from Thomas Pestel’s A Psalm for Christmas Day Morning) and No 5 (‘Sweet baby, sleep’ from George Wither’s Hallelujah, or Britain’s Sacred Remembrancer) distil a fireside glow that genuinely warms the cockles. Last, but not least, comes the festive A Choral Cantata, written in 1991 for the Southport Bach Society and (once again) full of heartfelt, readily assimilable inspiration. Needless to report, the indefatigable David Temple secures splendidly alert results from his Hertfordshire Chorus and London Orchestra da Camera.
We’re also treated to a bonus disc containing all of Hurd’s output for voice and piano. The budding composer’s Four Early Songs are taken from a group of 10 written during 1948 and 1949: particularly striking is ‘The Sick Rose’ (Blake) with its insistent tread reminiscent of ‘Saturn’ from Holst’s The Planets, while ‘The Widow Bird’ (Shelley) went on to enjoy a new lease of life in Hurd’s 1994 chamber opera The Aspern Papers (also available on Lyrita). Dated ‘Gloucester 1952’ but never published, The Night Swans sets 10 poems by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956): no fewer than six are drawn from Peacock Pie (1913), and the cycle is topped and tailed by ‘The Night Swans’ (with its haunting refrain of ‘Evangeline’) and ‘Night Song’ from Songs of Childhood (1902). Tenor Benjamin Hulett is in glorious voice here and in Carmina amoris (1979, twice revised, in 1982 and 1998). Poet and critic Paul Dehn (1902 76) – librettist to Berkeley and Walton, and the man responsible for the screenplays of Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Murder on the Orient Express – provides the urbane verse for the 1991 cycle The Day’s Alarm: all but Nos 3 and 5 are in fact comprehensive reworkings of songs from that early unpublished collection mentioned previously. Baritone Marcus Farnsworth delivers both this and the Three Songs by Robert Graves (1995) to the manner born – and a final word of praise for Simon Lepper’s unfailingly deft pianism.
Pleasingly truthful sound and balance, knowledgeable booklet essays by Paul Conway and John Talbot and the inclusion of full texts bolster the appeal of a most rewarding release.