One foot in Eden still, I stand
Five Irish Songs
Schola Cantorum of Oxford
Recorded on 12-14 March 2000 in the Chapel of Exeter College, Oxford
Reviewed by: David Wordsworth
Reviewed: February 2007
CD No: HYPERION CDA67615
Duration: 58 minutes
Nicholas Maw (born 1935) might not be the first composer to come to mind regarding choral music but this new disc (recorded in March 2000!) collects all of his smaller scale choral works across a composing career of almost fifty years. Well known, but still, at least in the view of the present writer, not celebrated enough for his orchestral output, Maw’s lyrical reflective style suits the choral medium well and although he has commented that much of his music for this genre is “modest in scope … usually for the entertainment of performers and audiences alike”, as this recording progresses it becomes clear that the music has hidden challenges and that it is with the more straightforward works that the Schola Cantorum of Oxford is most comfortable.
The opening work, “Three Hymns”, would certainly be within the capabilities of a reasonable amateur choir, the settings being helpfully and colourfully supported by an organ (the player here non-credited!). The “Three Hymns” set texts from the Oxford Book of Christian Verse including Sir Thomas Browne’s wonderful “Evening Hymn” – a meditation on sleep and death that serves as the emotional climax of the whole work. The first piece, ‘Morning Hymn’ certainly raises its hat to Maw’s teacher Lennox Berkeley, the second ‘Pastoral Hymn’ even to composers like Finzi and Vaughan Williams, and all three are thoroughly effective, touching, and really deserve a regular place in the repertoire. The choir responds to the ‘Hymns’ with enthusiasm and confidence, as it does to the set of five Christmas carols that range from the austere two-part “Our Lady’s Song” and an imaginative setting of the well-known “The Angel Gabriel”, in which Maw surrounds the original tune with leaping, ecstatic dancing lines, to the soothing “Swete jesu” written for King’s College, Cambridge in 1992.
Mention should also be made of the witty “Five Epigrams” that set Robert Burns – what choir wouldn’t jump at the chance to shout the word ‘bitch’!
Though for the most part perfectly acceptable as a group (the odd tuning problem in some of Maw’s richer harmonic moments aside), the main problem with Schola Cantorum comes when solo voices are highlighted. This is especially noticeable in the striking motet “One foot in Eden still, I stand” in which solo voices and a quartet are set against the main body of the choir – the effect here is not so much an ear-tingling contrast as a worrying feeling that all is not well!
Still, the performances make up in commitment and energy what they lack in other areas – and if this release encourages people to examine the choral work of one of England’s finest composers then that is all to the good.