Elizabeth Maconchy, born 100 years ago last March, wrote choral music with a real flair for sonorous chord-spacing, overlapping resonances and textual clarity. This well-filled disc offers a (not quite complete) survey spanning her whole career, from a radiant Hymn to God the Father of 1931 to the impressive Still Falls the Rain, written in 1985 for her local Chelmsford Festival. One surprise is the inclusion of two strong and effective pieces of anti-Facist agitprop written for the Workers’ Music Association. Less surprising is the appearance in apparently light-hearted cycles of numbers of real depth, such as ‘The Snail’ in the 1979 Creatures, or ‘For Snow’ in the 1978 Four Miniatures – reconciling modesty with profundity in a way that’s typical of the composer.
The Singers are old hands a Maconchy’s music, and under the versatile Odaline de la Martinez they sing with immaculate pitching, balance and attack. They’re recorded in a heavy acoustic, and at climaxes the combination of this and some individual vibrato can become a little overbearing. But the quiet singing, as in the magical 1965 Nocturnal, is ravishing. Highly recommended. Now, how about a companion disc including Maconchy’s superb pieces for chorus and chamber ensembles?
Anthony Burton, BBC Music Magazine, 2/1/2008
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 ‘Bartok especially, but also Janacek, 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 protégé 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.
Ivan Moody, International Record Review, 3/1/2008
Although she may be best-remembered for her orchestral music and her thirteen string quartets as well as her chamber music, Elizabeth Maconchy also wrote a lot of vocal music – solo and choral as well - throughout her entire composing life. Her first major choral work (Hymn to God the Father) dates from 1931 whereas On Stephenses Day is her last work completed in 1989. Besides the unaccompanied works recorded here, she also composed several works with orchestral or ensemble accompaniment. It is to be hoped that these might also find their way onto record before long. So, most works here are unaccompanied, but for three somewhat shorter pieces with piano accompaniment (The Voice of the City, The Armado and The Ribbon in her Hair). The most striking common feature of all these works is the remarkable variety of the choral writing that perfectly responds to the wide literary sources chosen by the composer. Another remarkable feature is the contrapuntal mastery already evident in the earliest work here and a constant characteristic of Elizabeth Maconchy’s music in whatever genre.
Completed in 1931, Hymn to God the Father for double mixed chorus is as assured a setting of John Donne’s poem as one might dream. It is a highly accomplished work by any count, full of many typical Maconchy hallmarks, in particular her contrapuntal skill, although the music may still be indebted to that of her teacher RVW. I find this magnificent work one of the most impressive items in this generous selection. ...Nocturnal, composed for the 1963 Cork Festival, sets three poems by different authors (William Barnes, Edward Thomas and Percy Shelley) linked by a common phrase appearing in all three texts (“Will you come”) that thus also functions as a refrain. This magnificent cycle is one of many examples of Maconchy’s sympathetic writing for voices that nevertheless puts some considerable but not extravagant demands of the singers. Also composed in 1965, Propheta mendax, a witty setting of some satirical Latin texts from an 11th-century collection, was commissioned by the Vienna Boys Choir for whom Britten also composed his vaudeville The Golden Vanity Op.78 at about the same time. The often humorous character of the words is reflected in an alert setting, moving along at great speed. From about the same time dates the short, beautifully done and relatively simple carol for women’s voices, This Day. The 1970s were a fertile decade that witnessed the composition of a various instrumental and orchestral works as well as a number of choral pieces. These include Prayer before Birth (1972) for women’s voices setting a beautifully moving poem by Louis MacNeice, Sirens’ Song (1974) for mixed chorus to words from William Browne’s masque Ulysses and Circe, Two Epitaphs (1975) for female choir, Four Miniatures (1978) for mixed chorus on poems by Eleanor Farjeon and one of my favourites here, Creatures (1979), also for mixed chorus setting a wide range of poetry including another poem by Farjeon. The latter cycle is a splendid example of the way in which Maconchy responds to the diversity of her literary sources. These settings of poems about animals are in turn humorous, mildly ironic, serious (William Blake’s celebrated Tiger! Tiger!) and deeply moving (Cat’s Funeral). The concluding work is a marvellous setting of Edith Sitwell’s Still Falls the Rain completed in 1985 and is one of gems of this anthology. I suppose that Britten’s setting for tenor, horn and piano – his Canticle III Op.55 – composed in 1955 will be familiar; but Maconchy’s own setting for unaccompanied chorus adopts another view, but does so in a completely satisfying way, “contemplative but energised, the music creating a forcefulness that complements that of the poem” (Nicola LeFanu). This magnificent setting is, no doubt about it, a minor masterpiece that definitely deserves wider exposure. I hope that this performance by the BBC Singers will prompt other choirs to take it into their repertoire.
I cannot praise enough the dedication and immaculate singing of the BBC Singers throughout this generously filled release and Odaline de la Martinez for conducting vital readings of these consistently fine, often demanding and certainly rewarding works. This generous and beautifully produced release is a definite must for all admirers of Maconchy’s music, but also for all lovers of finely wrought, compelling and eminently singable choral music. It should not be missed. My Record of the Month, and it will feature high up in my list of recordings of the year.
Hubert Culot, Musicweb Interrnational, 3/1/2008
This is a superb record of some very well-written and far too little-known choral music by a particularly fine British composer, the centenary of whose birth was celebrated last year. For many people, the experience of coming into contact with this wide-ranging collection of consistently excellent choral music will be little short of revelatory, for Elizabeth Maconchy is perhaps better known as a very distinguished composer of orchestral and chamber works. This music – written between 1931 and 1989 – is equally the product of a most gifted composer. There are individual single settings alongside sets of pieces – choral suites might be a better description – and cantatas. In all, this is outstandingly successful, and is very strongly recommended.
Robert Matthew-Walker, Musical Opinion, 3/1/2008
All too easily a composer’s music can disappear off the radar; so thanks are due to Odaline de la Martinez and Lontano Records for reminding us that Elizabeth Maconchy was an exceptional composer of choral music. Her large body of works, which are underpinned by an inspirational choice of texts, are a lesson in word painting. Whether long or short, introspective or extrovert, she captures the very essence of the words in a singular and imaginative manner. These 26 tracks display every facet of her considerable skill. The BBC Singers give their usual polished performance, although at times I found the women’s voices a little rough around the edges. There is much here to enjoy.
Shirly Ratcliffe, Choir & Organ, 7/1/2008