The NMC Songbook

Burnside, Booth, Chapman, Tynan etc. (NMC D150)

17 March 2009 4 stars

NMCThe British label for new notated music NMC celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. In honour of this, the label invited a vast array of British, British-based, and Irish composers to compose songs to be recorded by a select group of musicians, and drawn together for release as a compendium entitled The NMC Songbook.

The project's initial impetus was simply the upcoming anniversary, which the board of directors wanted to mark with something appropriately ambitious and suitably memorable. Thus, the idea of an anthology of song made out of new commissions from composers young and old, was put forward. Such a project would, according to Bayann Northcott, help to invigorate the somewhat dormant genre of art song in Britain, whilst at the same time serve to increase the representation of song in the NMC catalogue.

As reported by Colin Matthews, Iain Burnside, and Northcott in the sleeve notes to the release, the process of commissioning and selecting songs for inclusion, and then 'matchmaking', as Iain Burnside describes it, performers and songs, was a long and complicated one. Yet despite the difficulties automatically attendant on such a project, the songbook, in the end, became more expansive, more eclectic, than any of its originators had originally hoped for. The project took on a life of its own, with over one hundred composers responding enthusiastically to the commission, and the berth was expanded from two CDs to four (though sadly a fifth accommodating the ultimately excluded settings proved too far a stretch).

King's Place offered free use of its concert facilities for the hectic recording sessions, which took place in the Autumn of 2008. At these sessions composers and performers engaged in what Burnside describes as a process of 'speed dating', with as little as twenty minutes available to strike up some sort of a rapport and to establish a collaboration. Over four successive days from April 1 2009, that same venue will host the launch of the fine set of recordings that emerged out of these original sessions. In eight concerts spread out over those four days the entire songbook will be performed, by the original musicians, in a series of thematically-organised shows. Instrumental music from Dowland and from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book (which links with a Galliard from Thomas Morley that features heavily on the recordings) will be interwoven into the performances. These concerts will surely prove to be, in their breadth of ambition at the very least, as 'crazy and exhilarating' an endeavour as the generation of the songbook itself seems to have been.


The NMC Songbook is comprised of 96 new or newly arranged songs from across the spectrum of new notated music. It features committed and highly fluent performances, which are all the more remarkable given the necessarily strained circumstances (each musician having to take on so much after all). Claire Booth, Elizabeth Atherton, Susan Bickley, Benjamin Hulett, George Mosley, Andrew Watts, and Ailish Tynan are just some of the illustrious singers involved, whilst Iain Burnside (piano), Jane Chapman (harpsichord), and Lucy Wakeford (harp) take on much of the accompaniments. The range of songs is vast and diffuse, as befits such a sprawling project. Yet if an overarching integrity is lacking, some sense of coherence is ensured throughout the four discs by the strictures all composers were subject to, namely to limit their settings to one or two singers, to a small range of accompaniment instruments, and to a maximum of length of about four minutes (though most fall into the 100 to 200 second bracket).

The songbook should thus be taken piecemeal. But sequential listening does nevertheless throw up some intriguing contrasts, and many interpenetrating juxtapositions. So one picks up on, for example, the focused, chamber intensity of Claire Booth in Colin Matthews arrangement of Birtwistle's This Silence before Light, and then is thrown suddenly into the more demonstrative, expansive anger of Stephen Loges and Iain Burnside in Julian Philips' Blist's Hill, before suddenly encountering the comparatively luscious harp accompaniment in Anna Meredith's Fin Like a Flower. Contrasts like this abound, though a personal favourite is to be found on the third disc where the Finzi-like strains of Michael Berkeley's Echo, bleed into the hushed stillness of Roger Marsh's Lullaby, before this gives way to the postmodern vernacularism of Dai Fujikura (discussed below). These wild juxtapositions enrich the flow, it seems to me, despite the syntactical upset they sometimes cause. Their appearance must be accepted as inevitable on a project like this, and embraced as natural revelations where each distant cousin informs the appreciation of the other. It is rare to find a collection of composers so resolutely separated in style and execution as those collected here.


As expected a large selection of the songs are co-extensive in the sense that they employ piano and solo singer (usually soprano, mezzo, tenor or baritone; the bass voice is avoided completely), whilst many others share the quality of using canonical British poets as source material. Examples of the latter include the clever mirroring voices which undercut the textual sentiment in Simon Bainbridge's setting of Shakespeare’s famous Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?, the mutually revealing though disparate John Clare settings from Tansy Davies, Anthony Payne, and Brian Elias, Giles Swayne's caustic enhancement of Thomas Hardy's I look into my glass, and Gordon Crosse's deeply impressive setting of a dirge from Shakespeare's Cymbeline. In the latter, Crosse displays a dextrous handling of musical colour and weight, which Lucy Wakeford on Harp and the baritone David Stout respond to with playing and singing of pin-sharp responsiveness, and great expressive depth. William Blake is a touchstone throughout the collection; Jonathan Harvey's creative evocation of time-laden, ethereal naturalism in Ah! Sun-flower, is typical of the sensitivity the composers bring to the setting of Blake's unique texts.

Composers also find myriad ways to deal with canonical texts in a more lateral way. Morgan Hayes sardonically sets an extract from Dickens' Dictionary of London (featuring a richly guttural characterisation from the mezzo-soprano Loré Lixenberg), Chris Dench makes creative and giddy use of text from Tristram Shandy in An Hypallage, whilst Edward Rushton offers a characterful and gently subversive take on a particularly anachronistic vignette from Samuel Pepys' diary from June 21, 1662. Gerald Barry juggles simple material in highly complex configuration in his extraction of lines from Wilde's Earnest, himself giving a full throttle, somewhat off the wall performance on voice and piano.

Vernacular texts are also used, and they in fact inspires some of the discs' more singular moments. Mark-Anthony Turnage's setting of a Leyton Orient football chant, fairly stock territory for the composer at this point, comes across as genuinely amusing and ear-catching. The ironic interplay of Andrew Watts and Benjamin Hulett (counter-tenor and tenor respectively) is vital to the earthy setting's success however. Dai Fujikura's use of a text from Harry Ross with two voices (Lixenberg recorded over herself) listing off bravura self-satisfactions (centring on Bluewater shopping centre and a Ford Mondeo), and then insults ('pillock, git'), is thrilling. Jonathan Cole's Scelsi-like (I’m thinking particularly of his Canti del Capricorno) abandonment of denotative sense in favour of consonant sounds and breathy explorations of the detailed grain of the human voice in tss-k-haa is entirely involving in Roderick Williams' tensile reading here.

Still more composers set their own text; Jordan Hunt neatly encapsulates the 'lines' of his text in the swirls and strokes of his music (the consistently excellent Claire Booth nails the eddying momentum of Hunt's piece well). Claudia Molitor signals the importance of urban tropes in the sounds and words of the younger composers in her piece for electronics and two voices My favourite sound. Geoffrey Poole's humorous, fecund Heynonnnynonny Smallprint is given with the true spirit of the raconteur by David Stout. Bryn Harrison's An Oblique closes the songbook. It consists simply of a repeated melodic phrase on the words 'Course of change too small to see', which is mirrored in the circling, regretful piano figure underneath. The song is impressive in itself, but it works especially well in this context, where before all had been change, but suddenly, with an intimation of arrested movement, of stilling elegy, the song draws the listener into an ambiguous, ambitious conclusion of wispy tranquillity.

Many other fine settings abound on this release. Christopher Fox's typically pointed and direct The True Standard Advanced is taken on with spark and vim by the tenor Daniel Norman and Nathan Gunnell on drum. Tarik O'Regan's Darkness Visible is a highlight of the set; it is haunting, attentively scored, and sensitively performed, with Watts, Hullett and Wakeford each offering tiny inflections of expression at various moments within the performance. Roger Marsh offers an achingly affecting Lullaby (with Claire Booth again on lustrous form). Donnacha Dennehy's Swift's Epitah is typically punchy and forcefully expressive, whilst Lloyd Moore's Music, thou Queen of Souls gives a lyrical and passionate platform to Ailish Tynan, who responds with an expertly pitched and intelligently (not to mention affectingly) phrased performance. Tynan is partnered on this song by a deft Iain Burnside. Burnside, it must be said, does a remarkable job throughout these four CDs, where he is called on again and again, in wildly different aesthetic contexts (from a spiky Philip Grange to a neo-romantic Roxanna Panufnick), without ever faltering in technique or in poetry of execution.

As can be expected on a release such as this, quality is not entirely consistent. One would have liked something more engaging from Emily Hall, Huw Watkins and Peter Maxwell Davies, for example. The arrangements of a Thomas Morley Gaillard from Colin Matthews that are interspersed amongst the songs, moreover, don't always sit too easily in the flow of the contemporary pieces of expression. Yet taken on its own terms, as a sui generis documentation of a genre thoroughly neglected in the last few decades of British composition, The NMC Songbook is an invigorating and stimulating proposition. The company has been instrumental not only in drawing together these disparate songs, but also, of course, in their commissioning, and so deserves much praise. There stands few records of living, breathing musical cultures quite as eclectic and pleasing as the one encased in the songbook, and the project is thus a testament to the current scene in Britain, thriving and plural as it is. For this, the endeavour should be applauded, and, indeed, cherished. This is the kind of release that repays investment time and time again; in years to come, when certain composers have faded, and certain others have emerged, The NMC Songbook will remain as a vital document of song composition at a particularly interesting point of development for British music, a point in which the songbook itself will have played no little part.

By Stephen Graham


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