Feature CD Review – The NMC Songbook

Written by: David Wordsworth

Songs commissioned for NMC’s 20th Anniversary

NMC D150 (4 CDs)

4 hours 59 minutes

This extraordinary project confirms the robust health and endlessly varied landscape of Britain’s new music. There is no other document anywhere that has given such a snapshot of an artistic community that, while comprised of a hundred different ways of expressing itself, is of one voice when it comes to creative energy” – John Adams

What better way for a record company to celebrate a significant anniversary than issue a commemorative CD? NMC has gone several times better for its 20th-anniversary not only by producing a handsome box of four discs but by commissioning around 100 British composers (with a couple of Irishmen and a reclusive Icelandic included for good measure!) to write songs for one or two voices, with an accompaniment for one, two or indeed none of the following – piano, harp, harpsichord, guitar and percussion.

I say that the composers were commissioned. It seems that payment came in the form of a bottle provided by the sponsor, but there can’t be many of the composers represented that have good reason to be grateful to the determination and vision of NMC and would have gladly taken on the task, bottle or not.

Quite apart from the music, Bayan Northcott’s wonderfully observed booklet essay describes the thinking behind the project, highlights the composers’ differing approaches to the task and explains some of the startling composer omissions – although one very obvious name in particular seems not to be mentioned at all!

As to the songs themselves – how to begin? Perhaps the surprising thing is, for want of a better phrase, the conventional nature of many of the settings – the vast majority of the composers opting for voice and piano, and coming up with perhaps an expected collection of poets – Thomas Hardy, Housman, Edward Thomas, Clare, Blake and Shakespeare.

Some composers managed to twist the arms of writer-friends to essay texts for them or write the lines themselves so evading the terrors of copyright clearance. Edwin Roxburgh and Joe Cutler got members of their family to contribute a text! Jonathan Cole gets out of the text problem by setting meaningless syllables, Rupert Bawden by writing Vocalise – Loch Lurgainn in the Sunshine. Of the others – most certainly worth a mention – are The Source (poem by Edward Thomas) set by David Sawer as a joyful duet accompanied by tubular bells and, also on the first CD, Anthony Powers touching memorial to Wilfred Mellers Shining Plain (A. E. Housman). Then an irresistible, sly setting of excerpts from National Trust guides by John White, Joe Duddell’s gravely touching Cease Sorrows Now and Hugh Wood’s beautifully crafted setting of George Herbert’s Easter.

Disc 2 has a most welcome surprise in the form of Gordon Crosse’s Dirge from Cymbeline (let us hope that this is a sign of more to come from this too-long-silent composer), Richard Causton contributes another vocal duet with percussion, English Encouragement of Art (William Blake), Bayan Northcott celebrates Elliott Carter’s 100th-birthday with Thomas Hardy’s Poet and Star and Julian Grant hints at the music-hall with Know Thy Kings and Queens.

On CD 3 Michael Berkeley pays homage to Poulenc in a setting of his own words Echo; Lullaby (Thomas Dekker) is set with affecting simplicity by Roger Marsh and on disc 4 mention should be made of Stuart MacRae’s The Lift of this World (anonymous text) for voice and a spare guitar accompaniment, Martin Butler’s haunting vision of London as seen by William Blake and Howard Skempton’s 50-second Silence on Ullswater.

What is really astonishing is the standard of the performances, always good and on occasion rather extraordinary. Three composers sing their own songs, not so shocking in the case of baritone Roderick Williams (whose seemingly endless versatility can also be heard in songs by Alexander Goehr and Anthony Payne), or maybe even in the case of Errollyn Warren, but Gerald Barry’s account of lines from Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest does rather take the plaudit as one of the most unusual items here.

Fearless composer-pianists Michael Finnissy, Jonathan Powell and Huw Watkins scamper through torrents of notes in both their own and their colleagues’ songs, whilst pianist Iain Burnside and harpist Lucy Wakeford clearly have had a busy few months! Three songs for solo voice stand out from the collection – Susan Bickley (who contributes several outstanding performances) sings a beautiful setting of John Clare by Brian Elias Meet me in the Green Glen, and Omar Ebrahim and David Stout give virtuoso accounts of terrific pieces by Simon Holt and Geoffrey Poole.

As if all this wasn’t enough, regularly interspersed between the songs are no less than 14 versions of a Thomas Morley Galliard made by Colin Matthews that have a touch of eccentricity, but are quite beautifully crafted – especially the first for two pianos (one of them sounding as if it had been wheeled in from the local!) and the last making use of the talents of all the accompanists together.

All in all a quite amazing, somewhat mind-boggling collection that displays the diversity of the British music scene – something to be dipped into and enjoyed.

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