Centred on the Cotswold poet-composer Ivor Gurney, this release offers powerful evocations of time and place, a wealth of delights. Judith Bingham’s eponymous piece (2013) poignantly interleaves passages from Gurney’s poems with memorial inscriptions on Roman tombs in Gloucestershire. Sarah Connolly responds marvellously to Bingham’s theatrical instincts, revisiting the spirits of the past with assurance and warmth of tone, matched with equal composure in fine choral contributions.
When it comes to Gurney’s songs, Connolly reaches a new level of intensity, superbly alert to the tragic vein of By a Bierside and the nostalgia of In Flanders. But it is Sleep that makes the deepest impression, Connolly lovingly conveying attention to articulation and harmonic nuance, and her judgement of the climax is masterly. Aurora Orchestra is warmly supportive and impeccably balanced. Gurney’s sensitivity to words, now by Robert Bridges, is further represented in the recently unearthed Since I believe in God the Father Almighty, written in 1925 during his incarceration in the City of London Mental Hospital. Clarity and faultless intonation to Gurney’s dense choral layers and sinuous writing (bearing some kinship to Arnold Bax) reveal Tenebrae’s commitment to this glorious music: listen out for the fabulous false relation near the end. The unison contours of Herbert Howells’s Like as the Hart are no less devoted but this account is one of the slowest; there isn’t enough energy to generate effective climaxes, despite sensitive, if somewhat distant, organ support by James Sherlock.
Nigel Short fashions greater momentum for the Tallis Fantasia (so inspirational for Howells and Gurney who attended its 1910 premiere), coaxing unforced grandeur and something ageless from the string-players. A similar glow occupies Valiant for Truth, John Bunyan’s words realised with heightened awareness, gloriously vivid. So too Lord thou hast been our refuge, opening pleas for “shelter from the stormy blast” given excellent diction and ethereal tone, and the rising phrases of the closing pages (with tenors seemingly going into orbit) don’t get any more thrilling than this.
Taking up the greater part of disc two is An Oxford Elegy (1947) setting from Matthew Arnold’s The Scholar Gypsy and Thyrsis for speaker, chorus and orchestra. Vaughan Williams creates a sincere response to this wistful evocation of an idyll, although, as Michael Kennedy suggests, it is as much a heartfelt tribute to friends lost in both World Wars. Simon Callow is his idiosyncratic self, the orchestra marvellously supportive and Tenebrae exemplary, a welcome break from Callow’s over-enunciated words, the delivery of every consonant and vowel creating a staccato effect that jars against the music’s smoothness. Some may prefer the EMI/Warner version with the magisterial John Westbrook. Signum’s booklet includes texts.