This lovely disc is conceived as a tribute to Alfred Deller (1912-79) and his friends Michael Tippett (1905-98) and Walter Bergmann (1902-88). The CD was recorded at St Thomas ‘s Church, Stockport, and features James Bowman and Robin Blaze (countertenors), John Turner and Laura Robinson (recorders), with Tim Smedley (cello), Dave Bainbridge (guitar) and Ian Thompson (harpsichord). Throughout the 19th century, the countertenor voice survived in all-male cathedral choirs. Deller was a member of the choirs of Canterbury and St Paul ‘s Cathedrals, and from this choral tradition he emerged as a soloist, largely as a result of the admiration of Tippett, who recognised the unique beauty of his voice.
For me, this CD is a rather wonderful trip down memory lane. As a teenager in the early 1960s, I listened entranced to my parents’ gramophone record of Alfred Deller singing Purcell’s ‘If music be the food of love’, with ‘Sweeter than roses’ on the other side of the record. I loved Deller’s elegant, smooth, yet emotional sound. Five years later, as an Oxford undergraduate, when I first heard James Bowman’s very different rich, strong, liquid tone, I at first thought he must be a tenor. He was a soloist in the Beauvais Play of Daniel , and I probably had some minor part as a singer or recorder player.
We also thought James was cool, because he could perform in two Messiahs at once, at opposite ends of the High Street, so long as one started half an hour later than the other. At about that time, in 1967, his career was launched when Benjamin Britten asked him to sing the part of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream . The second very fine countertenor on this disc, Robin Blaze, has been particularly admired for his performance of Bach cantatas with Collegium Musicum, Japan . The two recorder players are John Turner and his former student, Laura Robinson. Turner has premièred over 500 works for the recorder, and has composed a number of others.
This hour-long CD blends new music with old. First are three modern works, starting with Walter Bergmann’s Pastorale for countertenor and recorder (1946), to words by Norman Cameron. Bergmann was an influential figure in the revival of early music, as harpsichordist, recorder player and editor of recorder music for Schotts. Born in Hamburg , he was imprisoned by the Gestapo in 1938 and emigrated to England in 1939. He joined other musicians including Franz Reizenstein and Hans Gál in an internment camp on the Isle of Man , before his release at the end of World War II. Pastorale is a flowing and reflective piece dedicated to Alfred Deller, who first performed it together with Delia Ruhm in Canterbury .
Tippett’s Four Inventions for Two Recorders follow. Tippett taught at Morley College , where he worked closely with Deller and Bergmann, who invited him to become President of the Society of Recorder Players. The Four Inventions were written for the Society, and first performed by Bergmann with Freda Dinn in 1954 at the Froebel Institute, London , as part of the Recorder in Education Summer School, which trained a generation of performers and teachers. As a youngster I was thrilled to join its master classes, and proudly departed with my diploma. The delicate intertwining lines of Four Inventions require nimble fingers and good breath control. This is followed by the Soliloquy for countertenor, recorder, cello and harpsichord by Alan Ridout (1934-96); it was commissioned in memory of David Munrow, and is set to a poem by Thomas Campion. Soliloquy is a solemn, measured lament, expressing heartfelt grief for David’s untimely death.
Three earlier pieces follow, the first a Sonata in A Minor by William Williams (d.1701) for two recorders and continuo; the recorder players give a beautiful, lyrical rendering of the piece, which resembles Purcell in style and quality. Next we hear Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell (1696) by John Blow, for two countertenors, two recorders and continuo, to a poem by John Dryden. This is an extended composition, another elegy for a wonderful musician who died too young. The performers demonstrate how naturally the recorder’s sighing quality conveys grief. The two countertenors and two recorder players blend beautifully: until hearing this disc, I had not realised how this combination of timbres creates an elegant sadness which is deeply moving in its restrained depiction of sorrow.
The third piece is Handel’s Sonata in F major for two recorders and continuo ( c .1707), probably written during his time in Italy; it is given a very stylish performance by John Turner and Laura Robinson, whose tone is perfectly matched. Handel’s own manuscript, in the Fitzwilliam Museum , Cambridge , includes only the recorder parts of the first movement, while the basso part survives in another manuscript in the Library of Congress, Washington; its first recorder part is missing. John Turner and Christopher Hogwood spotted the connection between the two manuscripts. The third movement is familiar from the recorder sonata op.1, no.11 and its sister work, the organ concerto op.4, no.5.
The disc closes with two contemporary works, the first being Elegy: The Tomb of St Eulalia , a reflective piece by Peter Racine Fricker (1920-90) for countertenor, cello and harpsichord, to a Latin text by Prudentius. It was first performed at the Wigmore Hall London in 1955 by Alfred Deller with Desmond Dupré (viola da gamba) and George Malcolm (harpsichord). Fricker was a colleague of Deller, Tippett and Bergmann at Morley College . After Deller’s death, Fricker composed a companion piece to the Elegy , entitled In Commendation of Music , for soprano voice, recorder, gamba/cello and harpsichord, in memory of Deller.
The final work on the CD is Three Songs for countertenor and guitar by Bergmann, which began life as four short songs in 1973, but was revised ten years later to include the following three, ‘Mater cantans filio’, ‘To Musick’, and ‘Chop-Cherry’. The manuscript of these unusual songs is inscribed ‘for Alfred and Desmond’ (Dupré).
This disc might be subtitled ‘Elegies’, including as it does, Ridout’s Soliloquy in memory of David Munrow, Blow’s Ode on the Death of Mr Henry Purcell , and Fricker’s Elegy . They form a fitting commemoration of Alfred Deller, who himself died young by today’s standards, at the age of 67. The outstanding performers are ideally suited to the music, the recorded sound is extremely clear, and the musicians blend perfectly. I think that Mark Deller and the rest of Alfred’s family will be very pleased to hear this imaginative CD; I warmly recommend it.
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