Judith Bingham The Secret Garden

0 of 5 stars

Salt in the Blood
The Darkness Is No Darkness [– Segue – S. S. Wesley: Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace]
First Light
The Snows Descend
The Secret Garden

BBC Symphony Chorus
Fine Arts Brass
Thomas Trotter (organ)
Stephen Jackson

Recorded on 7 & 8 May 2005 at BBC Studios, Maida Vale, London; The Secret Garden recorded on 21 August 2004 in the Royal Albert Hall, London

Reviewed by: Mike Wheeler

Reviewed: May 2007
CD No: NAXOS 8.570346
Duration: 68 minutes

I don’t know about salt in the blood, but Judith Bingham (born 1952) certainly has choral music in her bones. A former member of both the BBC Symphony Chorus and the BBC Singers, and now the latter group’s Associate Composer, she has written extensively for choirs, and this Naxos release makes an effective showcase for her work in this area.

It opens with her 1995 Proms commission, “Salt in the Blood”, a nautical ghost-story built round sea-shanties, log-book entries and phrases from the “curiously poetic” (Bingham’s words) Beaufort scale of wind speeds. The story centres on a dispute between two sailors, Billy and Daniel, as to which of them is the better dancer. Daniel later slips and falls to his death. In the fog after a storm his ghost is seen high in the rigging, challenging the other men to climb up. Billy accepts, but the fog clears to reveal his dead body.Bingham tells her tale swiftly and economically, forging such a compelling arc of dramatic tension that the piece becomes a miniature one-act opera. The BBC Symphony Chorus and Fine Arts Brass give a performance full of spine-tingling atmosphere and narrative power.

“The Darkness Is No Darkness”, the earliest piece on the disc, dates from 1993. Taking as its starting-point one of the staples of the 19th-century English cathedral repertoire, S. S. Wesley’s “Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace”, it re-works both harmonies and verbal phrases from it into something Bingham describes as “more like a love-song”. The result is a compelling example of one composer’s creative response to another, and the moment when Bingham’s work moves seamlessly into Wesley’s original is remarkably moving.

The text of “First Light” is an extended meditation on the Incarnation by Bingham’s friend, the poet Martin Shaw. It is no fluffy nativity scene, however, but asks searching questions about the nature of transcendence and the hard realities of human existence. Written for the Winchester-based Waynflete Singers in 2001, Bingham’s setting matches Shaw’s imagery, with dramatic writing for both chorus and brass ensemble.

“The Snows Descend”, from 1997, is a paraphrase for brass of an earlier Shelley setting for chorus, “Gleams of a Remoter World”. It is gently meditative for the most part and, like “Salt in the Blood” and “First Light”, it shows Bingham’s handling of brass textures and sonorities to be as idiomatic as that of voices.

Another Proms commission, this time from 2004, ends the disc. “The Secret Garden” has no connection with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel of the same name. Subtitled ‘Botanical fantasy’, and scored for chorus and organ, it sets words drawn from various sources, some of them by the composer herself. They reflect on what might have happened in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve had been expelled, homing in on the relationship between moths and orchids; contemporary political and ecological resonance is alluded to but is not spelled out in any heavy-handed way. The score includes a virtuoso organ part and, again, Bingham’s sense of the dramatic holds the attention through the work’s succession of sharply characterised scenes. The recording was made at that 2004 premiere.

Throughout, the BBC Symphony Chorus responds to everything Bingham asks for – from the massively sonorous to the refined and precise – with an evident sense of commitment, as do Fine Arts Brass and Thomas Trotter. The recording comfortably accommodates the music’s wide dynamic range. Separate tracks for the individual sections of the two longest works, “Salt in the Blood” and “The Secret Garden” (both last over 20 minutes), would have been nice, but that’s a minor quibble. Texts are included in the booklet.

A very welcome release, then, especially if it encourages more recordings of Bingham’s music. This reviewer keenly awaits one of her stunning orchestral work, Chartres.

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