CD Review

As a psychologist...


© Chris Green, May 2010


It is very easy to lose one's musical palette (if such a thing exists!). What I mean is this: there are times when one really has to stop listening to music and enjoy the silence, in order to better enjoy music when one does return to it. That was my experience recently when I had an intensive period rehearsing a new work by Howard Goodall. His choral work, Eternal Light made such an impression upon me, that, at times, I found myself listening to other music, and phrases from the Goodall would intrude upon my listening.

As a psychologist I could offer various explanations for what is happening, but leave that aside and just take my word for it: rest your ears from time to time. So, I have done that, and now I return to music with which I am unfamiliar but which I want to share with you starting with Handel's oratorio Israel in Egypt. I can never understand why the work is not performed more frequently because there are some splendid choruses in it; the only drawback is that it requires six soloists which might stretch the resources of many societies too thinly.

Composed in 1738, the composer had more or less forsaken the world of opera where he had established such a reputation, and was gradually creating the musical form that we now know as the English oratorio, a mix of recitative, arias and choruses with occasional orchestral interludes. The first performance of the work was poorly received and looking at contemporary reports, it reminds us that rarely were such works performed with the due solemnity which they might now attract. The second performance was advertised as "Short'ned and intermix' with Songs". So, the audience could not take it then, but rarely these days do audiences have the chance to appreciate the thrilling writing,  which is fully realised in a 1975 Oxford recording and reissued on the Decca label, coupled with a  Cambridge recording of a Chandos anthem on a couple of CDs (Decca 443 470-2).

Mendelssohn added to the English oratorio with Saint Paul and Elijah, for which choral societies must be very grateful. He also did a fairly good job in establishing the value of Bach's music at a time when J.S. was consigned to a back-water, or at least that is how some music histories infer.  Mendelssohn's choral music is intensely satisfying to sing. At times, the Bach chorale seems to prevail; at other times, there is a polyphonic feel to it that makes each vocal line or less independent. The 16 anthems which comprise the reissued performance by the Corydon Singers and English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Matthew Best and recorded in1989 at a popular London recording venue, St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead. There is a warm bloom to the textures in this well planned programme which contains some many musical nuggets that should be performed more frequently. Included, but under its German title, is Hear My Prayer (Hyperion CDH 55268).

I remember seeing Sir Malcolm Sargent conduct the Leeds Festival Chorus in a performance of Elgar's The Apostles. It was in the 1960s and Sargent, by that time, was probably suffering from the fateful disease which claimed his life, but what music-making! The venue was Leeds Town Hall where he had conducted Walton's Belshazzar's Feast at its premiere. The audience was riveted and so were the singers- none of this looking down at the copies for protracted periods. Well, the chance to hear Sargent, this time with the Huddersfield Choral Society and the usual partnering orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in a reissued recording from 1958 is a "must". The coupling is a 1955 recording of Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius. Both come on a budget price Classics for Pleasure release which may lack depth in the sound department, but for musical integrity owes the listener nothing (Classics for Pleasure, 5 85904 2).