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Robert Hugill
MusicWeb International, 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.

Guy Rickards
Gramophone, April 2007

The performances all round are first rate and the recorded sound is excellent, which is no less than Bingham deserves. The BBC Symphony Chorus sing with gusto and Fine Arts Brass relish some fine brass writing, not least in The Snow Descends (1997), an atmospheric paraphrase for brass of one of Bingham’s choral works. Recommended.

Christopher Thomas
MusicWeb International, April 2007

At one level it is entirely fitting that this much belated first complete CD devoted to Judith Bingham’s music should focus on her works for choir. It is often said that choral music forms the backbone of Bingham’s output and it is certainly true that her skilful and idiomatic writing for voices is drawn from personal first-hand experience. She was a member of the BBC Symphony Chorus for a number of years before taking the decision to devote herself entirely to composition.

To take her choral music in isolation however is to risk neglecting the versatility that Bingham’s broader catalogue of compositions demonstrates. Ranging from orchestral music on the largest scale in Chartres, to ensemble, brass band, chamber and solo works, Bingham is one of the most flexible composers at work on the British music scene today. As if to prove the point it is anticipated that a CD devoted to her solo piano music will be released later this year.

Her facility in writing for brass has also been a hallmark of her output and there are several works for brass band, brass ensemble and solo brass instruments. One such work for brass band, Prague, achieved a certain—and unjustified—notoriety for its “modern” idiom in the band world when it was selected as the test piece for the annual round of the Regional Brass Band Championship contests in 2004.

Naxos has combined the best of both worlds with this disc showcasing several of Bingham’s most successful choral works. It includes two with brass accompaniment and two with organ. There’s also one for brass ensemble alone that appropriately draws its material from another Bingham choral work, Gleams of a Remoter World.

Dating from 1993, The Darkness Is No Darkness is the earliest of the works on the disc. It takes as its starting point S. S. Wesley’s hymn, “Thou Wilt Keep Him in Perfect Peace”. In her own informative sleeve-notes the composer explains that whilst playing through the hymn on the piano she noticed that a number of Wesley’s chords were unusual when played in isolation. The piece could therefore be thought of as a contemporary realisation of the Wesley with the more unusual harmonies rewoven into Bingham’s own distinctive harmonic sound-world, before segueing into the Wesley itself.

First Light was written for the Waynflete Singers in 2001. On numerous occasions—as in The Secret Garden and Salt in the Blood—Bingham has set her own words. In this case however she turned to a friend, the poet Martin Shaw, to write a poem dealing with the mysteries of the Incarnation. Of all the works here this is the most intense; impressively powerful in its exploration of the poem’s deeply searching subject matter. It is underpinned thematically by a series of notes the composer drew from the carillon of Athens Cathedral, opposite which she had stayed around the time of the work’s composition.

If ever evidence were needed of Bingham’s ability to cast a spell over her audience, Salt in the Blood and The Secret Garden are particularly potent examples. The two works also share the common ground of having been written to commission for the Proms and premiered at late night concerts in the Royal Albert Hall. This reviewer was fortunate enough to be present at both premieres. The combination of Bingham’s supreme skill in writing for voices, allied with music that leaves a lasting and haunting impression, succeeded in captivating the audience in the hall in a way that few other contemporary composers can emulate.

Salt in the Blood is a nautical ghost story; the tale of two Norwegian sailors who become embroiled in a fatal quarrel over who was the better dancer, as told by John Masefield in his Sea Superstitions. Scored for chorus and brass, Bingham tells the story against a backdrop of traditional sea shanties, interspersed with her own “hornpipes” and texts drawn from sources as diverse as the Beaufort Scale and Bram Stoker’s Dracula; all of which are bound together by the composer’s own verse. From its eerily mist-shrouded opening, through which the first strains of the shanty, Whisky Johnny, are heard as if floating across the water, Bingham creates a palpable sense of atmosphere that draws the listener in and doesn’t let go until the final sounds slowly disappear into the mist once again.

In the case of The Secret Garden it is the work’s live first performance at the Proms that is committed to disc here. The recording coming off very well when one considers the extraneous audience noises that can so often detract from live Prom recordings. Subtitled Botanical Fantasy, the work stems from the composer’s pondering on the Garden of Eden following Adam and Eve’s departure as well as “the central image” of the synergy between moths and orchids that Bingham became aware of through the BBC TV series The Private World of Plants. It was however the Swedish botanist Linnaeus and his descriptions of the sexual behaviour of plants that drew the composer to the eighteenth century and the decision to cast the piece in the form of a five movement French suite.

In comparison to Salt in the Blood, it is a very different sound-world that the composer creates here, yet no less magical in its atmosphere or inherent sense of musical drama. Thomas Trotter has been associated with Bingham’s music for some time and gave the first performance of her Ancient Sunlight on the organ of Symphony Hall, Birmingham shortly after the instrument’s belated completion a couple of years ago. There is a strong sense here of the composer writing to his considerable strengths, in a virtuosic part that Trotter dispatches with obvious brilliance.

Although it has been a long time in coming, this first Judith Bingham disc does the composer proud in first rate performances of some of her most characteristic and memorable music. The BBC Symphony Chorus under Stephen Jackson are beyond reproach and it is pleasing that the excellent Fine Arts Brass get their deserved moment in the limelight in The Snows Descend. Enthusiasts of Judith Bingham’s music will not want to be without this disc but for those who usually shy away from contemporary fare, this is real music that makes a real impression and is well worth exploring.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, February 2007

I felt rather sad at reaching the seventh and last volume of the Kodaly’s complete Schubert string quartets, a feeling made no better by that sombre opening to the Quartettsatz, which is here so heavily laden with sadness. The complete cycle has been a long time coming, but with each new disc the wait has been amply rewarded. The Quartettsatz is a work I have loved playing and in this quite gorgeous performance it sets the scene for a disc that continues the unfussy presentation characteristic of their playing throughout the series. In essence this final release is a ‘sweeping-up’ of all the bits and pieces that Schubert produced for string quartet. Much comes from the precocious teenager and most are incomplete. He was just 16 when he composed the Fifth Quartet, a score in which he seems to have lost interest after completing two movements. If they show the complete mastery the teenager had achieved in this genre, it is the one movement from the abandoned String Trio that points to the great composer to come. True the Minuets and Trios don’t add up to much, and had he lived longer he might well have returned to the Overture and added orchestral garb. The sound quality is of the impeccable quality we expect from this Hungarian source.

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