Recordings of the Year 2007
"An essential for any Tippett lover. But with these dazzlingly vibrant performances, if you love good choral music, then you should buy it."
"In 1994, at the occasion of the BBC Singers’ 70th anniversary concert, Tippett wrote: ’In my first encounter with the professionalism of the BBC Singers , I was immediately taken aback by their speed of learning and range of vocal skills. It would be the first of many such occasions when a composer’s dreams were brought to fulfilment.’ Given the quality of the singing on this disc, it seems that in over 60 years, things have only got better.
The disc comprises all of Tippett’s choral works for both unaccompanied choir and choir with organ, mostly sets of small miniatures, but also his two ’sets’ of multiple pieces (Four songs from the British Isles and the Five Negro Spirituals). This disc also contains two works not previously recorded: The hymn ’Unto the hills’ (Wadhurst) was written for the Salvation Army, and a fabulous arrangement of Over the Sea to Skye which was at one point to be the Scottish song in Four songs from the British Isles.
The BBC Singers have a remarkable ability to create immensely varied colours, something all too rare in most choirs. I’m not talking about successful dynamics, though that is highly apparent too, but the possibility of different types of piano and forte. This varies from the middle of Lilliburlero, ’’and he will cut all the English troate’. In fact, the Four songs from the British Isles are as fine a performance as you are likely to hear, with wonderful characterization from Cleobury and the Singers.
As can be expected, the choir contains soloists of the highest quality, notably Sián Menna in the intricate Lullaby, originally written for Alfred Deller and his Consort. There is also a beautifully plaintive but uncredited solo in The Weeping Babe.
On the down side, there’s very little time left between tracks - this just doesn’t allow the listener to breathe or sufficiently digest what they’ve heard…This, though a shame, isn’t the end of the world since the singing more than makes up for this small fault.
The disc culminates with an excellent performance of Tippett’s most popular work for unaccompanied choir, the five Negro Spirituals. When they are heard in his oratorio a Child of our Time, they appear with orchestral accompaniment and this sometimes leads to a feeling of lack of bass in the a capella version. This is certainly not the case hear, and they can be heard with aplomb at the end of Nobody knows…
This is a hugely recommended disc. Tippett knew his dreams were being brought to fulfilment in 1944. In 2007, they still are."
Church Music Quarterly - June 2007
"Scarcely time to draw breath but the BBC Singers offer a winning Tippett set."
"...The polish and professionalism of the BBC Singers are everywhere apparent, and they bring an imposing tonal weight to such familiar items as the Spirituals from A Child of Our Time. This is a fine account, aided by the lively acoustic of the Temple Church: for once one hardly misses the orchestra in "Go down, Moses". For the same reason the absence of boys’ voices in the Magnificat and Nunc dimittis for St John’s College, Cambridge, and of a plangent solo countertenor in Lullaby, for the Deller Consort, are less troubling than they might otherwise be. Stephen Cleobury and the Singers are especially impressive in the weaving lines and dancing rhythms of the madrigals and motets from the 1940s. Even they can do little to clarify the congested textures of the Songs from the British Isles, but there are two previously unrecorded items, giving this disc the edge over such long-standing and worthy rivals as the Finzi Singers (Chandos). An arrangement of "Over the Sea to Skye" weaves the familiar tune in some appealingly offbeat counterpoints, and a hymn-tune written by the atheist Tippett for the Salvation Army proves to be touchingly sincere."
The Gramophone - May 2007
"...The BBC Singers under Stephen Cleobury give strong, passionate performances. There were occasional moments when I did wonder whether less vibrato and purer tone might have worked better; but this is strong music and it responds to strong, technically confident performances. But here, the BBC Singers go far beyond mere technical competency, creating a series of varied but dazzlingly vibrant performances. If you love good choral music, then buy it."
MusicWebInternational - April 2007
Performance ***** Sound *****
"There may be passing similarities in style between Michael Tippett’s music and that of his friend Benjamin Britten. But where Britten’s hallmark is often lucid clarity, Tippett is much less easy to grasp on first hearing. That’s as true of these choral miniatures as much as his better-known more ambitious works. Tippett is more inclined to quirkiness, to go off at seeming tangents, and the serpentine intricacy of some of his choral writing puts even the best-drilled professional choirs to the test.
A hit-and-miss composer? That might be the impression you take away from this disc, but when Tippett hits the mark he does so like no other composer. The plaintive high solo of the Nunc Dimittis, floating above strange middle-range harmonies, soars worlds away from cosy Anglican convention. The ’sprung’ rhythms of Dance Clarion Air and The Windhover have a muscular freedom unlike anything in contemporary English music. The strangely irregular figures Tipett waves around the tune in Over the Sea to Skye may seem over-ingenious at first, but by the end their quite hypnotic, at the same time challenging the ear to re-examine a very familiar melody. Britten, masterful as he is, can seem disappointingly safe in comparison.
Tippett’s relationship with the BBC Singers went back to almost the beginning of his career, and he often expressed intense admiration for them. His faith is rewarded here. Other choirs - the Finzi Singers on Chandos for instance - have made a good case for this repertoire, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard things like the tortuous chromatic writing at the heart of The Weeping Babe come across with such conviction. Recommended."
BBC Music Magazine - April 2007
"Stephen Cleobury conducts the BBC’s professional choir in a Tippett programme almost identical, even down to the running order, to that which his younger brother Nicholas recorded 30 years ago with different singers.
Comparisons are, of course, inevitable. Stephen’s Dance Clarion Air has neater diction and slightly better tuning than his sibling’s; but Nicholas’s St John’s Service has a raw energy that Stephen’s lacks. Stephen’s spirituals are relaxed where Nicholas’s are excited, and the Yeats and Hopkins lyrics are more sensitively sung on the new CD. This also includes a previously unrecorded, but alas dull, Tippett hymn tune." ***
The Times - February 2007
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