Signum Classics are on a roll.
And now, I am the Song continues this incredible run of form, and then some.
Being relatively new to appreciating choral/vocal music, I feel Signum are up to something very special in bringing these works to such an accessible fore. The introduction here – for me at least – to the work of composer Bernard Hughes is just a staggeringly good record.
It leaps to life with two choral fanfares of poetry, from ‘Everyone Sang’ by Seigfried Sassoon and ‘I am the Song’, by Charles Causley. In keeping with the spontaneous delirium at the end of fighting and great & long distress, ‘Everyone Sang’ sees the BBC Singers respond with joy and passion to a quite beautiful melody. As the piece progresses, however, a very definite undertow of sadness and reflection speaks of the exhausting horror of war and release from its terror at the heart of Sassoon’s poem. This is beautifully done.
The Causley poem is similarly joyous outwardly, but like the Sassoon, the music weaves in the deeper significance of Causley’s lines with an almost hymnal appeal:
I am the clay that shapes the hand.
I am the word that speaks the man.
Causley’s work has long inspired musical adaptation, in recent years particularly in the folk sphere, with Mawkin Causley (and the very same ‘I am the Song’), The Unthanks, and to some extent, Natalie Merchant. There is something about the elemental music at the rhythmical core of Causley’s work which lends itself well to such setting.
With a record collection in his Cornwall house mixing Folk with a very great deal of Classical, including several LPs from Britten and Pears, it’s not hard at all to imagine that Causley might have loved this incredible response to his writing from Bernard Hughes and the BBC Singers. ‘I am the Song’ is a poem that seems to resonate with many people who come across it, and indeed back in 2012, on National Poetry Day, it was blazed across the big screens at Piccadilly Circus. It blazes here similarly.
Later in his life, Sassoon corresponded with Causley. His letters to Causley are kept in the Causley Collection at Exeter University Archives. There is something incredibly apt about their musical pairing here and the round between their two poems of song – fitting in the context of a record that seems to speak so eloquently about the cycles of beginning and ending.
Rabbie Burns, Stevie Smith & EE Cummings also get a run out on I am the Song and these are three wonderful pieces , but I have to single out the quite amazing response to Burns’s ‘The Winter It Is Past’. I think this is a truly exceptional piece, and has something of a lilting Border singing to it, but also in other ways, in its emotional space, startled me into thinking about music like Arvo Pärt’s ‘The Beatitudes’ or even ‘Cantus in memorium Benjamin Britten’. The melancholy lost-love alehouse wistfulness of Burns’s poem is somehow blended with the pull of much deeper song indeed in this excellent track . Not to mention that the melody will roll around in your head for days like waves. The way that musical adaptation can sometimes simply explode the meaning of the written word is very much in evidence here as the BBC Singers keen Burns’s ostensibly simple love lyrics:
The winter it is past, and the summer comes at last
And the small birds, they sing on every tree
Britten comes to mind again in the absolute stand-out piece on the record – which is saying something of a record that also includes the aforementioned Burns and the tour de force ‘The Death of Baldur’ – and that is the cast iron wonderful A Medieval Bestiary.
Taken from a 13th Century Bestiary in the Bodleian – described in the liner notes as “ranging from the comical and the inspired to the downright peculiar” – these Anglo Saxon animal allegories make for a stunning sequence which must surely be destined for repeated recordings. Of Britten, I can’t help but listen to Hughes’s piece and immediately recall ‘Curlew River’ and feel that I have somehow walked out alone into the fenland of a similar internal landscape. Maybe it’s the slightly eerie, slightly otherworldly aspects of both pieces that make me think this, but no matter, ‘A Medieval Bestiary’ is just a stunning piece of music.
As it sails away into silence in the devastating ‘Third Sermon’ the work manages to be both chilling and uplifting all at once, if such a thing is possible:
The end of your life should find you clothed in this faith,
your bones as full of sap as a luxuriant garden.
Know therefore the day of your death.
O man, make your chrysalis, and clothe yourself in the new man.
As the record ends, a kind of completeness of theme and thought seems to reign, much like Causley’s “earth that lights the sun.”