Album Review

Posted: Tuesday 27th June 2017
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Michael Hurd: Choral Music Vol. 1 – Musicweb International

Michael Hurd, the composer, writer and communicator about music in a variety of ways, was born and raised in Gloucester. Perhaps it’s no surprise, therefore, that his most celebrated book was his biographical study, The Ordeal of Ivor Gurney (1978). I mention that because I think Hurd’s choice of that particular subject is relevant to this present CD in a couple of ways: firstly it evidences his roots in English music; secondly, the contents of this disc show that, like Gurney, Hurd had a discerning eye for a text to set to music. Hurd moved away from Gloucestershire after university and national service and from 1959 onwards he made his home in Hampshire. It’s also worth noting that among his teachers were two fastidious musicians, Bernard Rose and Lennox Berkeley.

In recent years Hurd’s music has begun to make some headway on CD. For example Lyrita’s recordings of his chamber operas, The Aspern Papers (1996) and The Night of the Wedding (1998) were warmly greeted by Paul Corfield Godfrey, who especially admired The Aspern Papers. An earlier chamber opera, The Widow of Ephesus (1971) was recorded by Dutton Epoch. The same label issued his attractive The Shepherd’s Calendar (1975). In a lighter vein, Naxos issued a disc of his pop cantatas, which includes the Jonah-Man Jazz which I vividly remember singing as a schoolboy.

As Paul Conway points out in his informative booklet notes, vocal and choral music figured very largely in Hurd’s compositional output. This CD is announced as Volume 1 and I wonder how many more recordings are planned. I believe that there are quite a number of additional choral pieces, though several of these remain in manuscript. All the pieces here recorded were new to me but they deserve to be better known.

The most substantial offering is Night Songs of Edward Thomas, a collection of eight settings for unaccompanied SATB choir of poems by Thomas. These settings, it seems to me, are worthy to rank highly in the list of English part songs. I noted with interest before I listened for the first time Paul Conway’s comment that these pieces “illustrate Hurd’s concern to allow the words to guide the music.” All of them are impressive responses to the poetry of Thomas. I particularly liked the fluent, lovely setting of Two Pewits while the spare, eloquent music to which Hurd sets Lights Out, one of Thomas’s most celebrated poems, strikes me as an inspired response to the text.

Five Spiritual Songs uses poems by George Herbert: three of the poems were also used by Vaughan Williams in his Five Mystical Songs. Hurd’s music is for unaccompanied SATB choir. . He opens with a strong setting of Antiphon (‘Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing’). The second piece, The Pulley, is a mellifluous composition and I like the use of a most unexpected chord on the very last word in the piece. Hurd’s response to The Call is, as Paul Conway says, resolute while the concluding Exultation (‘Rise heart, thy Lord is risen’) is properly exultant. These are very good settings.

The Missa Brevis is for upper voices (SSAA) and organ. It was dedicated to Lennox Berkeley and his wife. Sir Lennox was enthusiastic about the piece, describing it as “skilfully written for the voices” and expressing particular admiration for the Agnus Dei. As will be seen from the overall timing, it’s a concise composition. The Gloria is the longest movement; its outer sections are festive in tone. I can see why Hurd’s former teacher admired the Agnus; here the music seems to me to evidence what I might call poised fervour. As befits a work dedicated to Berkeley, the music is attractive and elegant throughout.

Merciles Beaute is a collection of three Chaucer settings for unaccompanied SATB choir. Thoughtfully, Hurd provided a modern English paraphrase of Chaucer’s texts for choirs who might be daunted by medieval English: rightly, the original texts are sung here. A Parley of Owls is the witty title for a set of three unaccompanied SATB songs in which Hurd uses poems by three different writers on the subject of owls. These are short, attractive compositions.

The opening piece, A Secular Anthem, conflates two poems by seventeenth century English poets, Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell. The texts sit well together and the piece, which is for SATB and organ, is a fine one.

I’ve enjoyed making the acquaintance of all the pieces on this disc. Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers are enthusiastic advocates for the pieces. I was mildly surprised to see from the booklet that only three tenors are listed in a choir of 30 (11/8/3/8). In fact those three singers hold their end up well and generally the tenor line comes through well. If I have a criticism of the choir it would be that the sound tends to be rather soprano-dominated. It must be said, though, that the singing is well disciplined, as I’ve come to expect from this choir’s recordings, and the diction is very good. Inexplicably the name of the organist has been omitted form the documentation but I was able to establish that the organist is Martin Ford; he does a very good job.

That’s the only flaw that I could detect in documentation that is otherwise excellent, as we’d expect from a Lyrita release. The recorded sound is very good.

Noting that this is described as Volume 1, I look forward to discovering more of the choral music of Michael Hurd in future releases.

John Quinn
Musicweb International