This new CD of songs by the composer, musical director and organist Peter Lea-Cox presents a wide-ranging exploration of English verse, songs and religious texts in what is a largely, but not entirely, traditional musical language. The songs extend in mood from the soft dissonance of Winter Prelude (T.S. Eliot) to a catchy setting of Katherine Foyle’s Let the Season lift your Spirit . These numbers will appeal to listeners who enjoy the vocal music of composers such as Gerald Finzi and John Ireland, the emphasis being on a sensitive fusion of words and music.
I enjoyed the six Gerard Manley Hopkins settings, which were conceived as a song-cycle. The date of composition is not given. I recognise that these extremely familiar words must be exceedingly difficult to set in a convincing and novel manner. Peter Lea-Cox has adopted a Finzi-like setting of most of these texts, which will remind the listener of that composer’s Dies Natalis . There is a good contrast between the lyrical and the declamatory. Typically, the songs reveal themselves slowly: they tend to avoid strophic repetition. The largely syllabic settings of these words are particularly effective. I did not like the hymn-like setting of Thee, God I come from, to thee go – it is in danger of sounding like RVW’s Linden Lea . Unfortunately, the liner-notes give no analysis of these songs. It is as if they have been forgotten.
I am old-fashioned. I do not agree with the premise that ‘solo songs’ can be substituted for the choral anthem at Matins or Evensong. It is but a short step from this to choruses accompanied by guitars and synthesisers. It probably has its place – but not in any formal liturgy. The present Eight Seasonal Anthems were written in 2005 for use in the Lutheran Church in London: the texts were culled from that denomination’s Book of Worship . In themselves these are delightful songs that slip between an almost Andrew Lloyd Webber-y ‘pop’ feel to RVW/Holst folksong and back to something a little more profound. The effect is typically thoughtful. I would suggest that this set of eight songs actually makes a good ‘song-cycle’ that could be presented in a church-based recital.
There is a short ruminative piano prelude that has crept into the batting list. It is a fine example of a gently atonal piece that nods to Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie . I certainly hope that there is more where this came from.
I enjoyed the ‘collected songs’ best of all. Usually, when a poet issues his or her ‘complete poems,’ it will include scraps, juvenilia and ‘uncollected’ fragments. When it is a volume of ‘collected’ poems it refers to a carefully edited selection of their major achievements. In the case of Peter Lea-Cox’s ‘Collected Songs’ I understand that they have been judiciously chosen from a huge pile of manuscripts. The introduction suggests that the date of composition of these eight songs covers a period of two decades. I do not believe that they are meant to be heard as a cycle as they are too diverse and lack a musical or literary theme. These cover a wide range of poetical and musical emotion. They are settings of poems by a broad selection of writers including T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats and Edward Thomas as well as those who were members of the composer’s church.
I had not heard any music by Peter Lea-Cox before reviewing this disc. I was aware of his exploits as an organ recitalist and as the founder of the Lecosaldi Ensemble and his directorship of the Camden Chamber Choir. When he was director of music at St. Jude-on-the-Hill Church (1973-1986), he composed a number of anthems and canticle settings. During his time at St Anne’s & St Agnes City Church he produced a ‘huge corpus’ of short choir pieces and ‘offertories’ for solo voice and continuo. These were used at Sunday morning worship. One of his larger achievements is four ‘Passions’. These balance modern and baroque idioms. I understand that he has also written a number of Chorale Preludes for the organ in a variety of contrasting styles.
Lesley-Jane Rogers gives an outstanding account of these songs. Her voice is well-suited to the variety of moods and styles required. Her strength lies in holding an effective balance between the more forceful and extrovert numbers and those that are intimate and reflective. The accompanist Jennie-Helen Moston – does everyone associated with this CD have a hyphenated name? – makes a valuable and sympathetic contribution to the proceedings. The liner-notes are good with the above mentioned exception. The sound quality is ideal.
I suggest that these three groups of songs be taken as distinct entities. This is not a CD to listen to from end to end. In case anyone thinks I am being unkind, I would take the same view of a disc of songs by Schubert, Britten or Ireland. Explore slowly and enjoy the diversity on offer here.