Review of LNT127: Elizabeth Maconchy: Music for Voices
Ivan Moody, International Record Review
Elizabeth Maconchy had a vivid choral imagination and clearly loved writing for a cappella choirs. This invaluable collection ranges from the whimsical (but nevertheless superbly written and often technically challenging), represented by Creatures, a multi-poet cycle dating from 1979, to the blackest depths, as in her impassioned MacNiece setting Prayer before birth or her hugely impressive Still Falls the Rain. She was able to conjure up atmosphere in just a few notes or a gesture - the fear of darkness in the slithering, hollow chords and meandering lines of 'Light the lamps up, Lamplighter', or the unceasing fall of snow in the descending patterns of 'For Snow', both from a Farjeon cycle, unpretentiously named Four Miniatures (1978) - are splendid examples.
Prayer before birth is in some senses the highlight of the disc - though A Hymn to God the Father and Still Falls the Rain are equally convincing candidates for this accolade - not least because MacNiece's poem is so chillingly relevant today ('I am not yet born; O hear me,/Let not the man who is beast/Or who thinks he is God come near me'), but the disc is well planned as a recital and amply repays attentive listening from beginning to end. Maconchy's voice is definitely her own. Her daughter Nicola Lefanu notes her early interest in 'Bartók especially, but also Janáček, Berg and Holst', and the distance from anything remotely resembling Britten, let alone the earlier English choral tradition, is striking. However, the wonderful A Hymn to God the Father might suggest a refraction of music from a few centuries before (again, Lefanu draws attention to her skill in counterpoint: she was a protégée of C. H. Kitson).
The challenges of her vocabulary are meat and drink to the BBC Singers - you can hear them really enjoying themselves when doing things such as exercising the control necessary for the crescendos and abrupt stops to work effectively in 'Cat!', the seventh of the Creatures cycle. My only complaint would be the sometimes rather short breaks between tracks (particularly jolting between Prayer before birth and This Day). This is an outstanding recording.