, May 2007
As a composer Judith Bingham’s teachers included Alan Bush and Eric Fenby. As a singer she was a member of the BBC Singers from 1983 to 1996. She has written eleven works for the BBC Singers and became their Associate Composer at the end of 2005.
On this disc the BBC Singers bigger, voluntary brother, the BBC Symphony Chorus, has recorded a programme of Bingham’s music.
Salt in the Blood was inspired by hearing the Henry Wood Sea Songs at the Proms; Bingham uses a sequence of sea chanties and hornpipes to tell a story based on an idea from John Masefield’s Sea Superstitions. Bingham’s piece is about a quarrel between two sailors over who is the better dancer, the quarrel leads to death and a ghostly conclusion. The piece features four traditional sea chanties and three invented horn-pipes. Bingham wrote many of the words of the chanties, so that they tell the story in the way she wants. Through this structure she has threaded fragments of the Beaufort Scale, extracts of diaries and log books, Bram Stoker’s Dracula and her own words.
The result is enchanting and involving with the invented horn-pipes, played by the brass, mixing well with the traditional chanties. The BBC Symphony Chorus bring to the piece involvement, enthusiasm and technical ability which means that the story is well told in a vivid manner. Bingham’s music is extremely well put over. I would have liked better diction from the choir. But this is something which applies to all the choral items on the disc and may be down to the recording rather than the chorus.
The second piece on the disc sheds a fascinating light on S.S. Wesley’s Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace. Bingham’s The Darkness is No Darkness takes fragments of Wesley’s piece, both music and lyrics, to re-work them into something new, refracting Wesley through Bingham’s own music. Bingham selected the fragments of Wesley’s piece because she felt that some of the harmonies were unusual when used in isolation. The piece is immediately followed by Wesley’s original, giving us the ability to compare and contrast.
First Light, again for chorus and brass, sets a poem by Martin Shaw about the incarnation. The poem is densely mystical, but Bingham’s exploration of this mystical nature of the incarnation manages to be questioning and approachable without ever seeming to approach the complex density of the words. This is Bingham’s real gift in choral music, the ability to say complex things in a manner which neither looks down on the listener nor belittles the subject matter. It starts from nothing and builds towards the ecstatic; musically the piece contains the echoes of Byzantine church music and bells that Bingham heard whilst she was in Greece.
The Snows Descend is a brief work for brass ensemble which is a paraphrase of Bingham’s choral work Gleams of a Remoter World. The original choral piece sets words from Shelley’s Mont Blanc and I did wonder whether it would have made sense to have included the choral piece on the disc as well. But even on its own, The Snows Descend is a fascinating work.
The last piece—The Secret Garden—is the longest and, in many ways, the most complex. It was a 2004 BBC Proms commission for the BBC Symphony Chorus. The subject matter came about after Bingham started thinking about the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve left. The text involves references to Linnaeus’s sexual descriptions of plants, the Adam Tree or Tree of Knowledge which stood in Qurna, Iraq until it was destroyed in the Iran-Iraq war and inspiration from the BBC Series, The Private World of Plants.
The text is essentially a poem by Bingham herself, though the printed libretto includes superscriptions from suitable Biblical quotes as well. Musically the piece is in the form of a French suite, inspired by the 18th century world of Linnaeus, though Bingham wears this form lightly and the visitor could easily pass by without realising the exact form of the piece. Writing for the newly restored Albert Hall organ, she includes a substantial organ part including a solo movement describing the synergy between plants and insects.
The piece is approachable but needs some work. It responds to repeated listenings as you allow yourself to be subsumed into Bingham’s world. The BBC Symphony Chorus and Thomas Trotter perform the piece admirably and I must praise them highly. But there were moments, when I wondered what the piece would sound like if sung by a smaller, less well-upholstered choir. I would like to hear it sung by a group with a leaner, more vivid tone. But that is to nit-pick and I will happily return to this performance again and again. The recording is all the more impressive for being live. Essentially this is a transcription of the BBC Proms broadcast. We could wish that the BBC could re-cycle more of their contemporary music Proms broadcasts in this way.
Conductor Stephen Jackson is also the Director of the BBC Symphony Chorus and so has had the dual responsibility for training the chorus and conducting the performances for the recording. The results are admirable and the disc is a fine showpiece for the talents of Jackson and his chorus.
Judith Bingham has not always been well represented on disc and it is good to hear such a generous selection of her choral music in these fine performances.