Giving voice

The second Sunday of December each year is designated World Choral Day. I’m not sure when it was established, but I suspect that my primary school teacher may have preempted it: he always reserved one day per year as his Opera Day. That was over 50 years ago. For the whole morning and afternoon, we students in his class weren’t allowed to speak; only to sing our questions, answers, delights and frustrations. Such fun. And it would have been even more so, if he’d had the Naxos Manila office staff as his students…but more of those little songbirds later.

The World Choral Day exhorts people to give voice, and “…take springs there where fire burns…put roses there where battlefields lay…”, and so on. The great English composer William Byrd (?1543–1623) had his own cris de coeur on the subject, opening with

            Since singing is so good a thing,
            I wish all men would learn to sing.

and following through with observations that included

  • william-byrd-1The exercise of singing is delightful to Nature, and good to preserve the health of Man.
  • It does strengthen all parts of the breast, and does open the pipes.
  • It is a singularly good remedy for stuttering and stammering in the speech.
  • It is the best means to procure perfect pronunciation, and to make a good Orator.
  • There is not any Music of Instruments whatsoever, comparable to that which is made of the voices of Men, where the voices are good, and the same well sorted and ordered.

I have no doubt that Byrd would be delighted with the general standard of choral music and performance today, so, in case he’s tuning in to this blog in a spooky sort of way, let’s highlight some of the choral recordings released by Naxos this year, to give context to the excellent state of our global larynx.

In August, we released a recording of Maximilian Steinberg’s Passion Week (8.573665); it’s recently been nominated for a GRAMMY® award. In November, the performers toured the piece in Russia and the UK, wrapping up with this report by Steven Fox, who directed the Clarion Choir:

steven-fox-1“The Clarion Choir this past week returned from giving the Russian and UK premières of Passion Week by Maximilian Steinberg, a long-lost Russian choral masterwork written in 1923 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The piece was never performed in the composer’s lifetime due to the Bolshevik ban on sacred music. Last week, more than 90 years after the piece was written, Clarion had the privilege of giving the first performance of this work in the country where it was written, and the response from the Russian public was extraordinarily appreciative and heart-warming.”

Here’s the opening of the work’s Blagoobraznïy Iosif (The Noble Joseph).

bach-choir-1Charles Villiers Stanford died in 1924, the year following the composition of Passion Week. In September we released a new CD of Stanford’s choral music (8.573512), which received very favourable reviews, including this from The Guardian: “Bravo to David Hill, the Bach Choir and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra for bringing three neglected large-scale works by Charles Villiers Stanford to wider attention in this excellent recording.” One of those works is Song to the Soul which, like Passion Week, was never performed in the composer’s lifetime. Here’s an extract.

If there was ever a piece to have a bit of an identity crisis about its progeny, then it might well be Rossini’s Stabat Mater (8.573531), which we released in July. It has a complicated history: Rossini wrote it for performance in Madrid but, running short of time, he sought the help of his friend Giovanni Tadolini; Rossini completed six pieces, Tadolini seven, but the latter exist only as piano reductions; conductor Antonino Fogliani orchestrated them so we can now hear the work as originally intended for the first time since 1833. Here’s the conclusion of the work, a contrapuntal Amen.

john-rutter-1In slightly sunnier tones comes the music of John Rutter, who is widely acknowledged as the most popular British composer of choral music in recent years. Past Naxos recordings of his music have always been enthusiastically greeted by the public and critics alike, not least our May release of his Psalmfest (8.573394), a collection of nine settings for choir and full orchestra. From that disc, I’ve chosen an extract from This is the Day, music that Rutter wrote for the wedding of the UK’s Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in 2011.

We’ll end with a track from our July release of choral music by John Ireland and E. J. Moeran (8.573584). Renowned for his outstanding piano miniatures and solo songs, John Ireland is less well known these days as a composer of partsongs. His deep understanding of choral forces, however, brought a unique polish and artistry to the genre, his early style reflecting a deference to his masters Parry and Stanford (see above). Here’s Ireland’s a capella setting of William Blake’s Laughing Song.

Our coda this week is a quick strut of our talented musicologists based at the Naxos office in Manila. Klaus Heymann, chairman of Naxos, enjoyed numerous video greetings from around the world on the occasion of his 80th birthday in October. I hope you’ll agree that the Manila team’s offering deserved the award for impromptu choral charisma!

Leave a Reply