John McCabe: Visions
John McCabe writes that he composes carols ‘as relaxation from sterner stuff’. It is classy relaxation: the setting of I Sing of a Maiden which opens this programme, with telling use of semi-chorus, is raptly atmospheric and consummately crafted, while the writing for solo soprano in Dormi, Jesu! is alluring.
The ‘sterner stuff’ comes in Mangan Triptych, the Mangan being James Clarence, a troubled Dublin poet who strongly influenced James Joyce and Seamus Heaney. McCabe sets three extended pieces of Mangan’s verse, the sequence as a whole lasting nearly half an hour.
It’s demanding listening, made easier by the superlative performances of the BBC Singers. The rapier-like phrases sliced out in ‘And then no more’, and the sharply unanimous dispatch of attacca accents in ‘Motet’, are but two examples demonstrating the singers’ deep appreciation of the music’s requirements, and David Hill’s alert, accomplished conducting.
Of the shorter pieces the vernal limpidity of The Lily-White Rose has strong lyrical appeal, while in the organ-accompanied diptych The Morning Watch and The Evening Watch smaller groups of voices are again effectively deployed against the tutti sections.