We probably need a note on genre here: if only to prevent me putting you off this gorgeous disc by doing a self-consciously “classical” review. Elsewhere, you’ll find me raving about Pop, Flamenco, Klezmer, Jazz and Prog when I’m not mentioning great scores in film recommendations or extolling fine writing in TV as well as modern novels, from Burgess and O’Brian to Block (murder mysteries).
So I don’t normally “do” Classical reviews; they have mostly been done, after all. But I do get the urge to recommend anything whose quality renders it “classic” in the timeless sense. And there is, happily, a lot of wonderful music here. All of it is generated through the application of broad experience and understanding, technical and emotional, of people the composer can rightly claim as his peers (Britten, Vaughan-Williams, Holst, Warlock, Arnold and many others, up to and including John Donne – the highest praise I can give) to a simple but exceptionally abundant palette.
Above all, what compels me to commend this is the sheer amount of listening this composer has done and which is so evident in his compositions: Philip Wood has clearly enjoyed, as you will, his exceptional musical education – which, again, he gives back (he teaches, I understand) in gestures that combine gravitas with a sense of humour, a feeling of pleasures won through skill and effort but shared in a mood of mutual celebration and in the spirit of endless entertainment.
Yes, this is music that rewards listening more completely than most. Not just your ears, but the listening of the performers in bringing it to you, their attention to each other and the score: which is very much a case of these particular notes in this particular order forming a richer and more generous whole through being sung and played – and recorded – so sympathetically.
Wood’s intricate way with simplicity extends beyond musical attention, too. His ear for speech-rhythms and poetic diction is matched by a fine attunement to the sounds of nature, birdsong, weather, breathing. The settings of songs and sonnets here achieves beautiful variety around a core of authenticity which goes beyond “illustration” of experience and captures the essence of English culture in its purest form. It’s like a new look at a familiar landscape in the company of a perceptive, talented friend. With some spontaneous dancing.
The disc comes with excellent notes from the composer which will help to reinforce that sense of an invitation to pass time with good company (an appropriate quotation, there). This is also transmitted by the quality of the recording and the calibre of those recorded. The performers on the disc couldn’t be better suited to the music: more than enough experience (past) to stamp their collective authority on already deeply-rooted music; plus the flair to bring out Wood’s original, erudite eye and ear on the future.
The best “new” is forged with respect to history, plus inspiration: and goes on to establish its own longevity – “timeless” again. In that regard, Lesley-Jane Rogers’ soprano is the perfect vehicle for these words and these notes, whether she sings unaccompanied, or along with another familiar-but-new voice, that of the recorder, here played by virtuoso John Turner. Then, with Harvey Davies on harpsichord and Heather Billson on cello, the ensemble continues to express Wood’s intentions to perfection, accomplishing strokes that are at once recognisable and novel, fresh yet familiar in the way that the new cuckoo is to everyone who has heard one before, or who yearns for next year’s on a winter night.
Add another virtuoso cello from Jonathan Price to the striking counter-tenor of James Bowman (Partita), cap the programme with the Manchester Camerata Ensemble (Richard Howarth and Julia Hanson, violin; Tom Dunn, viola; Jonathan Price, cello) and you can feel the music growing organically, come to discern its own internal seasons that Wood has embedded from a life in music and his love of his Lake District home.
Wood does austerity and frivolity with equal finesse. He allows the words of the “set pieces” to establish the overall tone and proceeds to complement the text with what I can best describe as highly-focused elaboration, a controlled intensity that serves to animate and liberate the poetry.
He chooses writing that, like his music, both embodies and transcends tradition, fusing the concentration and compression he brings with that of the originals (especially Donne’s) to generate what is almost a “third form” out of the collaboration, one that involves the listener in an elegant, exciting and moving partnership. And when I say “moving”, I’m attesting not just to the profundity of many passages, but also the happy vigour of something like the (instrumental) Forlana – whose danceability at least one child of my acquaintance will gleefully, physically endorse whenever she hears it.
There are a lot of “voices” here, but the unifying element is that of Wood. The sheer amount of music on the disc offers us the opportunity to step into a lively and informed “conversation” about music (and poetry, landscape, relationships), all of it eloquently “chaired” by the well-informed composer-listener.
It’s not just the musical information, either: the disc has “lyrics” from as varied a list as the Troubadour Arnault Daniel, John Donne, John Keats, Henry Vaughan, Christina Rosetti, Adrian Mitchell and John O’ Keefe (in whose “Amo, Amas”, lovers “feed each other through their skins and eat / Religiously the spiced, symbolic meat”). That alone should give you a sense of what’s on the menu; but there’s also a palpable relish for the very forms explored and the blend of tradition and exoticism they conjure: Aubade, Nocturne, Capriccio, Moto Perpetuo, Aria, Rondo…
If we really have to, “English Neo-Classical” might be the proper section for Sonnets, Airs and Dances: but “timeless” is better and “self-defining” is best of all. So the truest category for this work is… Philip Wood. And it’s a fabulous introduction to this composer’s music, in that it manages to be both highly personal, with a recognisable identity, whilst universal in a way for which the simplest formula is: if you love music you should love what Dr Wood and his world-class colleagues do here.