Review of LNT127: Elizabeth Maconchy: Music for Voices
Hubert Culot, MusicWeb
Although she may be best-remembered for her orchestral music and her thirteen string quartets as well as her chamber music, Elizabeth Maconchy also wrote a lot of vocal music - solo and choral as well - throughout her entire composing life. Her first major choral work (Hymn to God the Father) dates from 1931 whereas On Stephenses Day is her last work completed in 1989. Besides the unaccompanied works recorded here, she also composed several works with orchestral or ensemble accompaniment. It is to be hoped that these might also find their way onto record before long. So, most works here are unaccompanied, but for three somewhat shorter pieces with piano accompaniment (The Voice of the City, The Armado and The Ribbon in her Hair). The most striking common feature of all these works is the remarkable variety of the choral writing that perfectly responds to the wide literary sources chosen by the composer. Another remarkable feature is the contrapuntal mastery already evident in the earliest work here and a constant characteristic of Elizabeth Maconchy’s music in whatever genre.
Completed in 1931, Hymn to God the Father for double mixed chorus is as assured a setting of John Donne’s poem as one might dream. It is a highly accomplished work by any count, full of many typical Maconchy hallmarks, in particular her contrapuntal skill, although the music may still be indebted to that of her teacher RVW. I find this magnificent work one of the most impressive items in this generous selection. The Voice of the City is a setting for female voices and piano of a poem by Jacqueline Morris written as a lament for the fall of Stalingrad. This very fine setting was composed for the Workers Music Association and is rather more straightforward though quite effective and without compromise. We are not told when the Sean O’Casey setting of The Ribbon in her Hair for men’s voices and piano was composed, but probably in the mid-1940s. The music is quite comparable to that of The Voice of the City, though with a hint of folksong. I was reminded of Lads of Cotswolds from RVW’s opera Hugh the Drover. Although apparently much later, The Armado, a setting for mixed chorus and piano of a 17th Century ballad celebrating Drake’s victory, is quite similar in its straightforward, rumbustious manner. Nocturnal, composed for the 1963 Cork Festival, sets three poems by different authors (William Barnes, Edward Thomas and Percy Shelley) linked by a common phrase appearing in all three texts (“Will you come”) that thus also functions as a refrain. This magnificent cycle is one of many examples of Maconchy’s sympathetic writing for voices that nevertheless puts some considerable but not extravagant demands of the singers. Also composed in 1965, Propheta mendax, a witty setting of some satirical Latin texts from an 11th-century collection, was commissioned by the Vienna Boys Choir for whom Britten also composed his vaudeville The Golden Vanity Op.78 at about the same time. The often humorous character of the words is reflected in an alert setting, moving along at great speed. From about the same time dates the short, beautifully done and relatively simple carol for women’s voices, This Day. The 1970s were a fertile decade that witnessed the composition of a various instrumental and orchestral works as well as a number of choral pieces. These include Prayer before Birth (1972) for women’s voices setting a beautifully moving poem by Louis MacNeice, Sirens’ Song (1974) for mixed chorus to words from William Browne’s masque Ulysses and Circe, Two Epitaphs (1975) for female choir, Four Miniatures (1978) for mixed chorus on poems by Eleanor Farjeon and one of my favourites here, Creatures (1979), also for mixed chorus setting a wide range of poetry including another poem by Farjeon. The latter cycle is a splendid example of the way in which Maconchy responds to the diversity of her literary sources. These settings of poems about animals are in turn humorous, mildly ironic, serious (William Blake’s celebrated Tiger! Tiger!) and deeply moving (Cat’s Funeral). The concluding work is a marvellous setting of Edith Sitwell’s Still Falls the Rain completed in 1985 and is one of gems of this anthology. I suppose that Britten’s setting for tenor, horn and piano – his Canticle III Op.55 – composed in 1955 will be familiar; but Maconchy’s own setting for unaccompanied chorus adopts another view, but does so in a completely satisfying way, “contemplative but energised, the music creating a forcefulness that complements that of the poem” (Nicola Le Fanu). This magnificent setting is, no doubt about it, a minor masterpiece that definitely deserves wider exposure. I hope that this performance by the BBC Singers will prompt other choirs to take it into their repertoire.
I cannot praise enough the dedication and immaculate singing of the BBC Singers throughout this generously filled release and Odaline de la Martinez for conducting vital readings of these consistently fine, often demanding and certainly rewarding works. This generous and beautifully produced release is a definite must for all admirers of Maconchy’s music, but also for all lovers of finely wrought, compelling and eminently singable choral music. It should not be missed. My Record of the Month, and it will feature high up in my list of recordings of the year.