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Recordings

Champs Hill Records CHRCD057
01 Aug 2015

Review: You Promised Me Everything

Richard Taruskin entitled his 1988 polemical critique of the notion of ‘authenticity’ in the context of historically informed performance, ‘The Pastness of the Present and the Presence of the Past’.

You Promised Me Everything — Vocal and choral works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad

A review by Claire Seymour

Champs Hill Records CHRCD057 [CD]

$17.99  Click to buy

It’s a phrase which seems to encapsulate Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s modern-day engagement with the music of the yesteryear, as represented by the compositions which comprise this CD, You Promised Me Everything, which express a gamut of human emotions and complexities with startling dramatic impact. The CD, released in 2014, represents 10 years of writing for the voice and for choirs, and includes Frances-Hoad’s first choral work, There is no rose, composed when she was a teenager, and her first BBC commission, Beowulf (2012), a ‘miniature opera’ for soprano and piano.

One Life Stand (2011) for mezzo soprano and piano epitomises the wonderful inventiveness and persuasiveness of Frances-Hoad’s response to iconic compositions of the past, and the thoughtfulness and acuity of her text setting. The eight songs of Schumann’s Frauenliebe und Leben (Women’s Live and Loves) describe a woman’s love, from her point-of-view, from her first meeting with her beloved, through marriage, to her husband’s death and beyond. Apparently prompted by singer Jennifer Johnston’s remark that the nineteenth-century perspective of Chamisso’s poems was now rather outdated, Frances-Hoad has revisited a woman’s ‘one life stand’ through settings of eight poems by the crime writer Sophie Hannah, and has created a musical narrative which spans from the first bloom of passion to the grief of bereavement.

From the two rocking chords which form the opening bars of the piano accompaniment of the first song, ‘Brief Encounter’, there is a sustained conversation between the accompaniment and voice, and a diversity of texture that is a worthy homage to Schumann. Jennifer Johnstone’s line is pure and eloquent, her intonation dead-centre: the melodic arcs soar above diverse scintillating piano textures and figurations which are articulated with bright clarity by Joseph Middleton. The harmonic language beguiles with Romantic sumptuousness at times but is never indulgent, and unaccompanied vocal phrases both isolate sentiments and add sincerity.

Cheryl-Frances-Hoad.pngCheryl Frances-Hoad

There is humour too: indeed, the titles of the songs often speak drolly: ‘The Pros and the Cons’, ‘The Ante-Natal’, ‘Rubbish at Adultery’. And, this is echoed in musical details such as the brusque, quiet perfect cadence which closes ‘The Pros and Cons’, wriggling piano accompaniment to ‘Rubbish at Adultery’ (meticulously executed by Middleton), and the dry chordal accompaniment which punctuates with wry emphasis the text of ‘The Ante-natal’:

‘My husband doesn’t want to hold the plastic pelvis model.
He tells the other husbands that it’s bound to be a doddle.
He thinks the role of classes is to teach, not mollycoddle.
He’ll go so far, but not an inch beyond.

My husband is afraid of meeting women called Magenta,
Of sharing wholesome snacks outside the Early Learning Centre,
Of any exercise that’s an incontinence preventor.’

I was reminded, in terms of both the text setting, vocal flamboyance, and pithy accompanying gestures, of Britten’s Cabaret Songs of 1937-39 — indeed the neatness of the rhymes seems to match Auden’s wry verbal dexterity: ‘My husband mocks the books with their advice about nutrition,/ He shocks the other couples in the coffee intermission.’

In contrast, ‘Tide to Land’ has a rolling melodicism which recalls the songs of Gerald Finzi, underpinned as this song is first by linear, exploratory textures and harmonic inflections, and then by repeating chords in the keyboard. Johnstone securely negotiates the abrupt changes of register, and her lower voice has a soft beguiling quality; she wraps her alluring mezzo around the elegiac lines most beautifully. But, there is darkness, too, at the start of ‘Shadow Tree’, in the ominous, slow, low- and close-registered piano chords which seem to compress emotion; and, the distance between the cloudy accompaniment and floating vocal line isolates the voice in loneliness — this song is the emotional centre of the cycle. Here and elsewhere the melodic poise, elasticity and naturalness recall Britten vocal lines in works such as the early Hymn to St Cecilia, and the later canticles.

The gentle reticence of the textures and harmonic language of ‘In the Chill’ — which contrast with intermittent expanses of volume and density — movingly convey the destabilising unpredictability and impact of loss. The final song, ‘The Cycle’, begins with contained but agitated figures in the piano which ascend to the highest registers, plucking at the nerve-strings. There is restlessness in the rippling arpeggios which follow as the voice seems to strive upwards, futilely seeking resolution, frustrated yearnings as the music repeatedly breaks off into silence. In conclusion, however, there is some consolation, with the return of the rocking chords of the first song ‘Brief Encounter’: perhaps one woman’s song of life and love belongs to us all, ever to be repeated.

Frances-Hoad studied at the Menuhin School and then at Cambridge University with Robin Holloway, before completing a Ph.D. at King’s College London with George Benjamin and others. Several of the works on this disc were commissioned by Geoffrey Webber and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and are performed here by the College choir.

Psalm 1 for choir and organ (Nicholas Lee) was commissioned to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University and was first performed in May 2009; the work won Frances-Hoad a BASCA British Composer Award in 2010. The opening seems to be reassuringly posited in the line of the English choral tradition: the harmony leans towards diatonicism, a single sustained note played by the organ anchors the rich flowing voices, and the ‘open’ sound once again recalls, for me, early Britten. But, the theatrical interruption of a disjunctive parlando for male voices, punctuated by dissonant quasi-screams by female voices, is disturbing, as the text moves from an account of the virtuous to the ungodly, and the work closes ambivalently and disconcertingly, unresolved intervals fading into a dark void: the wicked shall surely perish.

Soprano Rose Wilson-Haffenden’s stratospheric solo which commences Frances-Hoad’s Nunc Dimittis (2000) for 21 a capella voices is stunning: crystalline, penetrating, mesmerising. Brief this three-minute work may be but there is no shortage of intensity and range: as the accumulating voices cascade, rebound and then retreat, Frances-Hoad’s sensitivity to the text is once again confirmed. The solo soprano’s final, ecstatic high C shines like a starlight into the cosmos. There is no rose won Frances-Hoad the Bach Choir Carol Competition in 1995 and was premiered by the choir at the Albert Hall that year. Again there is a debt to Britten; yet, the composition shows an astonishing command of textural and harmonic nuance, and such subtleties capture the both the meditative and exhilarating qualities of the text.

Frances-Hoad does playfulness as well as she does piety and pathos though. Don’t (2009) was dedicated to soprano Jane Manning for her 70 th birthday and sets text compiled from Blanche Ebbutt’s Don’t’s for Wives (1913) — a handbook containing hundreds of snippets of entertaining advice for a happy marriage that has more comedic value than useful matrimonial guidance: for example, Ebbutt urges that a wife should forbid her husband to wear ‘a violet tie with grass green socks’ and instructs, ‘Don't expect to know your husband inside and out within a month of marriage. For a long time you will be making discoveries; file them for future reference’. Manning has just the right balance of vocal precision and dramatic insouciance; as she journeys to registral extremes, her soprano interacts ironically with laconic contributions from piccolo (Robert Manasse) and bass clarinet (Sue Gill), coolly conveying an air of self-deluding sincerity. The repeating hymnal plagal cadences of You Promised Me Everything Last Night (2011) for soprano, piano four hands and cello (performed here by Natalie Raybould soprano, James Young and Joseph Middleton piano and Rebecca Knight cello), together with the anchored vocal line which after each soaring foray returns to its starting point, seem to underscore the romantic clichés of the text. But, just as one settles into the familiar, Frances-Hoad nudges the listener from the groove: the voice strays off pitch, from melody to speech, and into breathlessness; the piano adds dissonant coloration. It’s clear that, unnervingly, these six words (the subtitle is ‘six words, two chords, many melismas’) conjure more possibilities and avenues than one imagined.

The CD concludes with Frances-Hoad’s 30-minute Beowulf for mezzo-soprano and piano, which was premiered in 2012 by Jennifer Johnston at the City of London Festival, and in which the composer re-explored the Anglo-Saxon poetry which she had set in her song-cycle The Glory Tree (the title track of her first Champs Hill CD, 2011). The narrative of the ancient text isabbreviated and tells of Beowulf’s two fights, with Grendel and with the dragon, set within a prologue and epilogue. The sparseness of the musical writing — announced by the clanging open fifths (piano, Alisidair Hogarth) of the first section, ‘So’, and the recitative-like directness of the vocal line (a magisterial Johnstone, who demonstrates enormous expressive and physical stamina) — has an epic quality, as if drama and expression are pared down to the bare bones. There is a frightening intensity in sections such as ‘Then his rage’: the rhythmic and melodic hairs are all on edge. Hogarth’s complex piano never overpowers Johnstone’s utterances though, which possess an elemental energy, and the piano’s airy asymmetrical motifs in ‘Hildeburgh’ are suave and propulsive. Frances-Hoad provides structural balance: there are episodes of reflection and restraint, and ‘When Hrothgar arrived’ is characterised by a lower tessitura (showcasing Johnstone’s rich chest voice) and tight oscillations of chords in piano accompaniment. The piano interlude mid-way allows for a drawing of breath. After the initial furious conflicts, the tone becomes more fatalistic and Johnstone succeeds in capturing the shifting moods as, after the assertive bravura of ‘Then he drew himself up’, the narrative sinks into the anguish, and quiet dignity, of the concluding declamatory episodes and final unaccompanied measures. This composition makes one long for a full-scale operatic work from Frances-Hoad.

With the exception of There is no rose, these recordings were all made either in the 160-seat concert hall at Champs Hill, the home of David and Mary Bowerman, or in Emmanuel College Chapel, Cambridge, and the recording quality is superb; there is an excellent balance between solos and ensemble, voice and accompaniment, and the sound is clean and bright but not too ‘near’. The CD is carefully packaged and presented with a detailed and informative booklet article by Malcolm MacDonald, and full biographies of all of the talented and committed musicians who perform. (One small quibble might be that no texts are provided.)

Frances-Hoad’s catalogue of honours is long and growing: she won the BBC Lloyds Bank Composer of the Year award when she was just 15 and the Mendelssohn Scholarship, The Bliss Prize, The Cambridge Composers Competition, The Robert Helps International Composition Prize (USA), The Sun River Prize (China), The International String Orchestra Composition Prize (Malta), The RPS Composition Prize, and the BASCA British Composer Awards (where she became the youngest composer to win two awards in any year for Psalm 1 and Stolen Rhythm in 2010) have followed. She has received two awards from the PRS Women Make Music Fund (for The Madness Industry, a brass quintet for Onyx Brass, and Sailing to the Marvellous, a 90-minute oratorio for four choirs and ensemble for Bridlington Priory) and has held the posts of Leverhulme Musician in Residence (at the University of Cambridge Psychiatry Department (2008)), Rambert Composer in Residence (2012/13), and Opera North/Leeds University Cultural Fellow in Opera Related Arts (2010/12).

But, more impressive still is the profusion and profundity of her musical invention, and the distinctive quality of her musical voice identity: on the strength of this CD, it’s clear that Frances-Hoad is able to fuse Romantic and Modernist sensibilities and to composer music which sings with naturalness and honesty which communicates richly and deeply.

Claire Seymour


You Promised Me Everything — Vocal and choral works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad

Rose Wilson-Haffenden, Natalie Raybould, Jane Manning (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Robert Manasse (piccolo), Sue Gill (bass clarinet), James Young, Joseph Middleton, Alisdair Hogarth (piano); Gonville and Caius College Choir/Geoffrey Webber; Nicholas Lee (organ). Champs Hill Records, CHRCD057 (79:43)

  

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