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CD Review

Jonathan Dove

Song Cycles

  • Out of Winter 1,4
  • Cut My Shadow 1,3
  • Ariel 2
  • All You Who Sleep Tonight 1,3
2 Claire Booth, soprano
3 Patricia Bardon, mezzo-soprano
4 Nicky Spence, tenor
1 Andrew Matthews-Owen, piano
Naxos 8.573080
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Great Britain has always had a strong tradition of song-writing. It's still a potentially deceptively simple form; yet remains one which can bring great depths of meaning and musical power. On this thrilling and satisfying CD from Naxos a collection of representative work by British composer Jonathan Dove (b. 1959) leaves the listener in no doubt that the form is bristling with energy and red blood. It consists of four contrasting cycles from different points in the composer's career. Each is performed with great conviction and aplomb by the singers and pianist here.

Out of Winter was written in 2003 to text by the late Robert Tear, a tenor in the tradition of Peter Pears, yet who has always had an aura of his own – as has Nicky Spence here. The tone of the entire CD is is set: enunciation, clean and clear, is balanced with a slightly understated expressivity predicated on the assumption that listeners will "fall in" with the literary idioms.

It is from the lyricism or penetrativeness of those idioms that the music takes its strength. Dove then has merely to stand behind that vigor to present much that is new, affecting and satisfying. And he achieves this as generations of predecessor composers have done.

Yet, alarmingly, Dove leaves his singers nowhere to hide in every one of these settings.

Their voices are as exposed as are the words on which they rely. Each singer here has obviously thought long and hard about the origins and import of the texts. As a partial result, they never need to rely on declamation, even though some of the songs are certainly rhetorical in nature (the sixth of Out of Winter [tr.6], for instance). The ranges of dynamic (fortissimi are almost as common as the more "regular" markings) also push our reception of the texts to its limit.

As an opera composer, Dove is aware of the power (and limits) of theatricality in music. In many ways he shares this with Britten, to and with whom he has been compared. His restraint when the text demands it (as all three songs of Cut My Shadow [tr.s 7,8,9] definitely do) is quite remarkable. Yet nothing of the necessary projection is lost. Nothing is exaggerated. No opportunity to use melody and tonal surprise (never shock) in the service of illuminating the text is missed.

It is to the credit of the three singers here and pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen that they completely understand the delicate balance between pushing an object into motion and guiding it throughout the course of its natural vector. Then they pull their hands away; and leave us wanting more. Equally noteworthy is the extent to which pianist and singer (and singer alone in Ariel, [tr.s 10-14]) create almost orchestral sonorities – as did Britten.

It is possible to overdo the comparison, though: true, both Britten and Dove make use of a single, memorable, melodic motif to place a work firmly in our memory. They each have a refreshing way of expressing irony in music (look up some of the texts of the Tear cycle, which has its genesis of course in Winter Words… Hardy loved irony). But Dove is very much his own person; he has a much greater sense of the absurd, of the eccentric; and of the non-conforming. More so than Britten. Those qualities are evident here, as are the performers' well-considered responses to them.

Also striking in this collection of songs by Dove (which range in date from 1996 to 2011) is the variety of sources and styles: Cut My Shadow has texts by Lorca; Ariel, of course, has Shakespeare as its inspiration; and All You Who Sleep Tonight sets Vikram Seth.

It's perhaps in this latter work – thirteen miniatures (lasting from 45 seconds to just under four minutes each) of darkened comedy – that a central aspect of Dove's work emerges: his concern for human frailty. But, because we're the humans, there is an implicit a belief that we (can, must?) have counterbalancing strengths too. Although written for the composer to perform with one of his favorite mezzos, Nuala Willis, it's sung here by the remarkable Patricia Bardon, a paradigmatic singer of this delicate blend of styles. As is the case with her fellow performers, Bardon twists, jumps, caresses, encourages, pulls (and at times, almost pushes) the music to wherever she knows it's meant to go.

It's likely that everyone will find something here, so great is the variety; and so touching and technically accomplished the singing (and playing). The haunting final song of the cycle from which the set takes its name sums it up; it exhorts us to know that none of us is alone. There's real community and humanity in all of Dove's work. And this CD displays it to very good effect.

The acoustic is focused and forward. We're definitely in the front row for these voices and the piano. That's just what is needed: Dove is always concerned to maximise communication, rather than effect. The short booklet puts Dove in context for those new to his work with a description of each song, too; by Matthews-Owen. But the texts can only be retrieved from the Naxos website. If Dove's is a new name to you, this CD is a good place to start. If you already enjoy his music and want to add these compelling songs to your collection, you will not be disappointed: only Ariel is otherwise available (on Blue Griffin 279). Recommended not only as an emblem of how successful and apposite British songwriting is, but as substantial music in its own right.

Copyright © 2014, Mark Sealey