McCARTHY Codebreaker TODD Ode to a Nightingale
With the appeal of choral singing in the United Kingdom showing no signs of decline it is, nevertheless, important that the concert repertory is refreshed with appealing and ‘relevant’ works, satisfying to both singer and listener alike. This generous two-disc release from Signum presents two recent important additions to the genre, launched with their customary bright and rich tone by the Hertfordshire Chorus under their indefatigable conductor, David Temple.
James McCarthy’s oratorio Codebreaker was first heard at the Barbican, London, in 2014. It is a musical portrait of Alan Turing, the mathematical genius whose endeavours saved countless millions of lives during the Second World War. McCarthy focuses on three key moments in Turing’s life: his love for a fellow school pupil Christopher Morcom, who was to die aged 18; the struggle to break the Nazis’ Enigma codes; and the agony of a man forced to accept chemical castration as the penalty for his homosexuality.
The musical idiom is thoroughly tonal, sometimes almost naively so. McCarthy draws his text from Turing’s mother’s memoir, Gordon Brown’s public apology (the first time that his words have been set to music?), Edward Thomas, Wilde and the 19th-century American poet Sara Teasdale. There is also a cameo appearance from Neville Chamberlain (his broadcast of September 3, 1939). Julia Doyle’s soprano contributions are poised and poignant. The orchestral interlude ‘The Bombe/War’ is suitably filmic, with what sounds like a tribute to Downton Abbey at 1'32" in track 8! Taken as a whole I greatly admired the honesty and sincerity of this music drama.
I was even more smitten by Will Todd’s Choral Symphony No 4, Ode to a Nightingale, another Hertfordshire commission, which casts Keats’s eight stanzas as a single-span movement. After the nightingale’s call we are immediately led into a post-Romantic world of fantastic imagery, with hints of Respighi at his most rapturous as well as Richard Rodney Bennett, Korngold et al. The choral writing is often homophonic in texture, blending into the orchestral haze. The harmonic highlight of the piece occurs in the fifth section (‘Away! Away!) at 1'27", when there is the most beautifully melting moment any large choir could wish to relish.
The BBC Concert Orchestra offer superb support to both composers and the engineering is up to Signum’s customary excellence. This important release should be in every keen choral singer’s Christmas stocking.