Martin Bird
Elgar Society
July 2016

‘What’s Martin up to now?’, I hear you ask. ‘Why is he bothering to review a disc called English Romantic Madrigals that’s only got one piece of Elgar on it?’ When I tell you that for a quarter of a century I conducted a choir called the Pearsall Singers I suspect the penny may drop. Robert Lucas de Pearsall (of Willsbridge), as his publisher, Novello, liked to style him, is one of the great unsung heroes of British music of the nineteenth century. An amateur composer (but one of genius) born in 1795—two years before Schubert—within a decade of Schubert’s death he was producing choral music of ravishing beauty and extraordinary tonal complexity of the like and quality that was being written fifty or a hundred years later by Elgar and Britten. The five ‘romantic madrigals’ of Pearsall on this disc set both a standard and a starting point for the development of that second ‘golden age’ of British unaccompanied choral music that existed for the second half of the nineteenth and the whole of the twentieth century.

To be sure, he composed plenty of ‘fa, la, la’ madrigals; but Holst and Vaughan Williams could ‘fa, la, la’ with the best of them without being dismissed as insignificant. And to pursue my comparison with Elgar and Britten for a moment: There is sweet music (1907) is rightly held up as a mighty example of Elgar’s technical and aural prowess: a piece simultaneously in two keys a semitone apart that contrives to sound both inevitably right and sensuous to the ear. A Boy was Born (1932—when Britten was still at the Royal College of Music) similarly gives us that perfect balance between beautiful, sense-tickling, sound and effortless technical complexity. But if, in the 1930s, you had said to someone, ‘I’ve had a great idea: I’m going to write a piece of music with every note of the scale sounding simultaneously’, and then proceeded to demonstrate the effect by leaning with both arms on the piano keyboard, you could have expected the response ‘you’re mad!’, or maybe ‘We don’t want any of that John Cage stuff here!’ And yet this is precisely what Pearsall was doing in the 1830s. He had a real genius for sound, and the technique to pull off astounding effects. Great God of Love is a part-song for eight voices. At its climax Pearsall piles on the suspensions1 so that every note of the D major scale is being sung at the same time (see Fig.1): yet such is his skill that the result is a perfectly balanced wash of sound. range of British part-songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Elgar’s contribution is little known—written for the anthology organised by Sir Walter Parratt in honour of the 80th birthday of Queen Victoria—and deserves to be rather better known, as does Goodhart’s Lady on the silver throne from the same collection. Henry Leslie, known, if at all, for his work as a choral conductor, contributes a couple of attractive pieces, and the disc is completed by an interesting selection of lesser-known pieces from the pens of Parry, Stainer and Stanford.

As to the performances, they are quite superb. I must admit to knowing little about The Choir of Royal Holloway—a mix-voice collegiate choir that loses nothing by comparison with the better known choirs of Cambridge—and in Rupert Gough they have a conductor with a real feel for music of this type. I defy anyone to listen to the closing phrase of Lay a Garland without feeling slightly weak at the knees. Inevitably the members of a college choir will change year by year, and maybe the current crop of basses show their youth a little in a slight lack of power in their lower notes, but this matters little, given the overall excellence of the choir’s singing. Perhaps the best accolade I can give is to say that, having obtained a review copy from Hyperion from Pearsallian rather than Elgarian motives, my immediate reaction on hearing the disc was to buy two further Royal Holloway/Hyperion discs—Hymns to Saint Cecilia (which includes There is sweet music) and a selection of Cantiones sacrae by Peter Philips.