WORKS: Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity
PERFORMER: Janice Watson (soprano); Brighton Festival Chorus, LPO/Alasdair Mitchell
CATALOGUE NO: CHAN 9669
Alasdair Mitchell’s personal crusade to establish the reputation of the Scottish composer John McEwen continues apace with his third McEwen recording, of the Milton ode Hymn on the Morning of Christ’s Nativity. Composed 1901-5, this 11-movement work has been left unperformed until now, not least because the sources needed some loving scholarship applied to them in order that a feasible performing score could be fashioned. As reported in December’s BBC Music Magazine, Mitchell did this from a vocal score and faded photocopies of the parts.
Thus restored, the work proves fascinating rather than overwhelming. McEwen might on stylistic grounds justifiably be labelled the Scottish Elgar. Although it would be foolish to claim that he consistently matches that composer’s level of invention, the roots of the music are the same – Wagner, Brahms and Liszt mixed and seen through the prism of Mendelssohnian oratorio. Sometimes I felt that the choral writing was a touch too solidly Victorian, far from word-enhancing, but the harmonies have a piquancy all their own, the orchestral colouring is rich, and some of the music for solo soprano (the opulent voice of Janice Watson) is on a par with a work such as Elgar’s Sea Pictures. Watson apart, the performance is less than pristine; the choral singing in particular does little to give the music flight except at really choice moments, for instance in the sixth stanza (‘At last surrounds their sight/A globe of circular light’), and the LPO is similarly on rather uninspired form. Stephen Pettitt