(The) NMC Songbook

A survey of British song, post-Britten, is an important cultural document

Author: 
David Gutman
(The) NMC Songbook

(The) NMC Songbook

As Bayan Northcott remarks in one of three detailed essays accompanying this set, the crafting of songs hasn’t been a central concern for UK composers since the death of Britten. NMC’s 20th anniversary celebrations may or may not “kick-start a new interest in the genre” but the initiative gives us a useful snapshot of British Music now, even if certain tendencies are better represented than others.

There are full texts and the imaginative design concept reflects the disparity of the idiomatic options available. Whether tonal, atonal or pseudo-tonal, some of these are found as if by chance and loosely worn, others carefully nurtured and obsessively worked. Britten remains in some ways the key figure in that his example persuades many contributors to stick with conventionally accompanied solo voice(s). That said, his intuitive response to a text is less easily imitated than the externals of his style. Martin Butler’s Blake setting upholds the tradition in its best and purest form. Other examples might lead you to conclude that dislocated consonance, high voicing and a certain infuriating feyness constitute the defining features of British song.

There’s room for the provocateurs as well. Luke Stoneham gets away with an electronic soundscape while Gerald Barry turns in a gleefully graceless recitation of Oscar Wilde. Jonathan Cole has Roderick Williams perform a sequence of phonemes while guesting on balloon.

In some numbers there’s an ill-advised tendency to guy vernacular traditions or demotic locution. It’s as if the perpetrators haven’t noticed that today’s purveyors of song are more likely to be active in the folk club or commercial sector.

Is a song a song at all if its text is merely a jumping-off point, a colour without a context? Morgan Hayes’s Dickensian passages, ideally chosen for such a project, are quickly sidelined amid dizzying virtuosity. Chris Dench is still sufficiently hard-core to represent what was once a New Complexity. Few others appear capable of writing fast music even in short bursts, hence perhaps Colin Matthews’s decision to break up the sequence with instrumental interludes. In the tradition of Stanford’s pseudonymous Karel Drofnatzki he may also be behind the modest haiku setting with its allusions to NMC marketing strategy. Call me old-fashioned but my own favourite items are those in which both the original text and the passion of a composer’s response are intelligible in the finished product. In Hugh Wood’s George Herbert setting, careful workmanship does not preclude a Tippettian sense of exaltation. I hear a similar sense of engagement in Simon Holt’s unaccompanied declamation (evoking a real-life incident in rural India) and Brian Elias’s more subdued John Clare solo. The way in which the items are juxtaposed can be crucial too; the cooler limpidity of Howard Skempton and Gavin Bryars is doubly welcome in context.

The performers range from good to excellent. Or is it just that Claire Booth, Susan Bickley, Andrew Kennedy and Roderick Williams get the kind of material to which I respond most warmly? The unflinching Loré Lixenberg has the hardest task – has she been asked to sing the numbers no one else dared tackle? The recordings were almost all made in Hall One, Kings Place, an acclaimed venue where instrumental voices are unfailingly well projected. Human ones, less comfortable with its zingy resonance, can become a little hectoring.

But then only a critic or a fool would listen to the entire collection at a sitting. Much better to study at leisure what should prove to be an important cultural document.

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