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Composers from Vaughan Williams, Stanford, Elgar and Howells to mavericks Grainger and Warlock meet newer works by MacMillan and Dove in chorally sublime contemplation of man's place in the world.
Jeremy Summerly You are well known among conductors for your particular concern for the expression of the text. Is it fair to say that what attracts you most about choral music is the words?
Paul McCreesh Yes, that’s true. I love poetry as much as the infinite possibilities of the human voice; for me, the best choral music is that which truly expresses the emotional content of the text. I’m frankly bored by so much of today’s choral ‘mood music’. I’m especially passionate about the colouring of words when I work with choirs, and I try to encourage singers not to be shy of really engaging in the emotional world of the piece. I suppose I’m consciously fighting that tendency of many British choirs to put technical considerations as the destination rather than the starting point. I come to this music as a generalist rather than a ‘choral specialist’. If you conduct an Elgar part song having conducted the symphonies and The Dream of Gerontius, as I have, then it inevitably alters your perspective.
JS How can you compare a four-minute part song with a 50-minute symphony?
PM Well, of course there are many differences, but I think that the choral miniatures we have chosen have the same kernel of genius as large-scale symphonic works. The attraction of working with a really good part song is its concision and I think the best of this repertory is absolutely some of the finest music of the 20th century. But there is a lot of distinctly average choral music; we need to be selective. I’m looking for music that has a focused intensity.
JS So then, ‘highly polished gems of secular choral music from 1902 to 1995’.
PM Perhaps not the greatest title for a recording—and I sense a note of cynicism! It’s harder to assemble a meaningful and logical programme in the part song and folk song repertory—you don’t have the potential to ‘sermonise’ in quite the same way as you can within sacred music, but all of the pieces here do have a certain depth. Singers frequently tease me about my love of slow, funereal music; I admit that even here there is a little bit of that.
JS You’ve opened with one of the most cherished part songs of the early 20th century, Stanford’s The Blue Bird. However, you present the top line as Stanford intended, with a group of sopranos, unlike so many performances these days which give the top line to a soloist.
PM Of course it’s far, far harder to sing that line with five singers, but using a soloist doesn’t just distort the piece technically; there’s also something emotionally different about it. Only twice in my life have I observed that brilliant flash of light as a kingfisher darts down a river, or along a lakeside. For Coleridge it seems to be a metaphor; those occasions when we see something in nature which connects very deeply with something within ourselves—a moment of understanding, of self-realisation, or perhaps a feeling of loss or an intimation of mortality. It is a very simple poem which is simply set, but connects with something rather profound. I’m sure that’s why this song remains the masterpiece it is.
JS Vaughan Williams dedicated Silence and Music ‘to the memory of Charles Villiers Stanford and his Blue Bird’.
PM Vaughan Williams’s piece is a homage, using the same technique of the soprano part being detached from the rest of the choir; for the poet, his wife Ursula, such detachment represents the idea of stillness and silence, and a dreamlike world from which music emerges. For me, nature and the countryside are truly food for my soul, both uplifting and humbling; and I often think we need to experience real silence if we’re truly to understand music.
JS Elgar’s own homage to the music in nature is a piece of great harmonic daring: Walford Davies described There is sweet music of 1907 as ‘opening up new possibilities in music’ with its high voice/low voice texture defined by two different keys.
PM It did indeed open up new possibilities, for instance in Elgar’s first symphony, which appeared shortly afterwards and is composed around two disparate key centres. But there is a natural quality to Elgar’s musical process which means that you wouldn’t necessarily notice the specific harmonic technique responsible for the sound world. For all the poetic elegance, Elgar is certainly much more of a musical revolutionary than people often realize.
JS And of course it is so incorrigibly Elgarian, in the same way that, a few years later, Howells became recognisably Howellsian. You’ve included one of Howells’s rarer forays into the secular world.
PM Yes, I particularly love The summer is coming. It’s full of all those gloriously rich Howells harmonies, but also wonderfully pictorial; you can imagine the bird darting around the lush pastureland as the cows graze by the sea—a perfect vision of Ireland! I’m sure had Howells written more large-scale music, we might revere him more, yet his music has such personality.
JS You’ve chosen a group of folk song settings, starting with Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Brigg Fair, a song that he transcribed in Lincolnshire in 1905 and set for tenor soloist and mixed voices.
PM It’s a very fine setting, and fairly well known. I think very few composers were able to arrange folk song and yet preserve the honesty and naturalness of the form: Grainger, for all his undoubted eccentricities, was one; Vaughan Williams another. Both Brigg Fair and The winter is gone have all the joy of a sunny day and the thrill of nascent love. But as always, the joy of love is soon tainted by the fear of rejection and loss, in both The Turtle Dove—another classic—and Bushes and Briars.
JS There’s a sort of delicious melancholy in these pieces, isn’t there? Grainger’s other work The Three Ravens is bleaker still…
PM Yes, I love that melancholy. Do you know the wonderful Grainger quotation, ‘The object of my music is not to entertain, but to agonise … it is the contrast between the sweet and the hard that is heart-rending’? It’s a great description of The Three Ravens; a bleak folk tale, open to many levels of interpretation. In this piece I often think of the Tasso/Monteverdi Combattimento, which shares the same motives of baptism and death and much thinly-veiled eroticism. I love the sardonic and sarcastic use of the folk refrain ‘with a down, derry derry derry down down’, and the final ironic couplet seemingly mocking the whole of the chivalric tradition; but at the same time Grainger paints such a tender faux-medieval picture. Utterly mad, and utterly inspired—that’s Grainger!
JS It’s the only accompanied piece on the recording; not, as you might expect, by a piano or a harp, or even an organ, but a harmonium.
PM As always with Grainger, there are a number of ‘elastic’ scoring possibilities—to use his phrase; five clarinets are another option, but Grainger especially liked the harmonium, and we found a fine French instrument. For me, the instrument has echoes of music as if heard through a chapel door, or a local band of singers with a concertina inside a pub!
JS The two newest pieces on the recording are fascinating. Both date from 1995, yet they are so very different from each other. James MacMillan’s The Gallant Weaver is an entirely Scottish creation—MacMillan is irrepressibly Scottish, isn’t he? As of course was the poet Robert Burns.
PM Yes … about as Scottish as it gets. It’s another parable of love lost—Burns in pastiche folk mood—but it’s also about the transience of life and passion (as are all McCreesh recordings in the end!). And this is surely MacMillan at his most approachable, isn’t it? What he does with his melody is profoundly beautiful—never suffocating the music with too much cleverness, or indeed too much love.
JS By contrast, Jonathan Dove takes one of the simplest folk songs you can imagine and makes of it by far the most virtuosic piece on the album.
PM Well, we had to prove we could sing some fast music. Who killed Cock Robin? is at first sight rather flashy. It’s certainly very difficult, but as with all of Jonathan’s music, if you dig deep you always find real content. As with The Three Ravens, the text is fascinating and there is much debate about what it might mean. The setting is mainly a light-hearted, vocal tour de force—but right at the end a final mock lament allows a little emotion to tug at your heartstrings.
JS This wouldn’t be a representative recording of twentieth-century secular choral music without featuring the music of Benjamin Britten.
PM Actually, I almost didn’t include any Britten at all. I toyed with the idea of including a whole group of pieces by Britten, but then I thought that might disturb the idea of working with small units. In the end I settled for The Evening Primrose, my favourite of the Flower Songs. Britten is one of those few composers who wrote complicated music in order to make it sound simple, rather than the other way round. His setting of The Evening Primrose is instinctively as beautiful and delicate as the flowers themselves, and as always with Britten, the mystery of darkness creates a very strong response.
JS This song leads to a final group of settings that are part of a more reflective world. You start with Warlock’s very rarely heard All the flowers.
PM Oh yes! This is the piece I had most fights about: the singers found it both bizarre and incomprehensible, but I’m glad I stood my ground. It’s of course very difficult, highly chromatic, and often particularly dissonant. Like Grainger, Warlock was a highly unconventional man. I think he captures the mood of this rather dark Jacobean poem on the transience of life rather brilliantly, with a quite amazing intensity. So let me ask you, Jeremy, have you ever managed to love this piece?
JS Wholly and unconditionally. All the flowers was written in 1923, and it’s my contention that none of that genre of choral music written over the last 40 years which focuses on clusters (as so much recent choral music does) would have been written without its existence. What I particularly like about this recording is that much of the oldest music that you’ve chosen is so highly influential and original—Elgar’s There is sweet music of 1907, Stanford’s The Blue Bird of 1910, and this fabulous Warlock part song.
PM Isn’t it marvellous that so many of these composers, who were not necessarily ‘world names’ of the twentieth century, were doing things that were nevertheless part of the vanguard of musical change? And so many of them with such a keen understanding of musical colour.
JS Elgar’s Owls, subtitled ‘an Epitaph’ is another example of just that. Elgar wrote both the text and the music in Rome on New Year’s Eve of 1907; it wasn’t commissioned by anyone, nor was it the suggestion of a publisher. Elgar clearly had a profoundly personal reason for writing it, even to the extent of penning the poem itself. Yet he said that ‘it is only a fantasy and means nothing’. That’s nonsense isn’t it?
PM Complete nonsense. There’s more than one enigma in Elgar. This piece is such a strange world of darkness, of stillness, of eerieness, and of incipient nightmares. When you listen to nature, it is on one level completely aleatoric, but on another you get the feeling that just maybe there is a grand plan, and I’m not talking about religion here, but about science. These birds can communicate in a way that we don’t understand—maybe that’s why we regard owls as wise! And Elgar got the meat of his musical ideas from nature, on his daily walks and bicycle rides. For me, Owls is a statement of the great unknowing: what are we? Why are we here?
JS I’ve heard you be a little bit dismissive of Christina Rossetti’s poem Rest. But to my mind, not only is it an extraordinarily powerful statement of nineteenth-century metaphysics, but Vaughan Williams’s 1902 setting of it is devastatingly fine.
PM No, I’m not rude about the poem, but it’s that style of expression that I can find a little bit sentimental and cloying.
JS But I don’t think Vaughan Williams sets it in a sentimental way.
PM I agree. Vaughan Williams pushes the poem away from that sentimental tendency. Indeed it is a quite wonderful piece because it encapsulates the Christian idea of resurrection, but its starting point is with the world of nature embracing the body, a beautiful poetic concept, later taken up in Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi and the great motet Take him, earth, for cherishing. This piece does move me, amazingly so; it’s as powerful, in its way, as the funeral march in Elgar’s second symphony. Different means, different scope and different context, of course, but the same response to our mortality.
JS Without making too much of it, I’d like to suggest that sometimes you’re dragged into a cappella music almost against your will; but once there, you immerse yourself in it and love it in spite of yourself.
PM Yes, I fully recognise what you’re alluding to. I am still a little bit of an outsider, as almost all the people with whom I perform this repertory have often grown up fully within the English choral tradition, many from a very early age. That’s not my background, and though I greatly respect that tradition, I come from the wrong side of the tracks. For all my life’s work with choirs, I am still primarily an orchestral conductor…
JS And yet…
PM The truth is I dearly love this music—well, the best of it anyway! I am really so passionate about singing, and the repertory is an amazing part of our heritage. I do wish we could share it a little bit more widely; it’s such a part of our British culture, and I believe every child, of every faith and colour, should sing! In the end there is nothing like working with a great a cappella choir. It can be such a powerful and yet intimate experience, so different from orchestral conducting.
JS What comes across to me, in listening to your shaping of the pieces on this recording and in talking to you about your work on this project, is how respectful you are of your singers and of the fact that in most cases they are, unlike yourself, insiders. You take off the conductor’s mask and you say, ‘come on, I know you sing so much of this music every day, but let’s just see where we might go’. At the same time, you’re not shy to demand they take risks, or to push the singers out of their comfort zone.
PM Yes, and it’s even more than that. With these singers I’m so privileged to have a real Rolls-Royce of a choir. It handles beautifully, and if I’m put in charge of driving it, I’m going to make the most of it! All the same, I know it’s about giving people confidence to find new things; you can’t really bully singers. Ten years ago, I didn’t have the relationship with a group of singers that I have now. It’s about being demanding, but trying not to get in the way. It’s also a two-way process: believe me, I’m pushing myself as much as I’m pushing them!
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