10 Desert Island Choral Pieces – Timothy Burke
We’re pleased to bring you a playlist of choral pieces selected by Timothy Burke, new Chorus Director, Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia and accompanying blog.
Click here to listen to Timothy’s 10 Desert Island Choral Pieces and read his accompanying blog below where he tells us a little on each piece, and why it belongs on his list…
Isolation, or being made into an island, is less of a stretch of the imagination at the moment than when I normally think about ‘desert island’ choices, whilst being somewhere exotic and far-flung is more of a fantasy than ever. So, choosing the choral music that I would want to have with me on a desert island somehow feels a natural thing to do right now. I think people singing together must be the oldest form of human music, reaching back hundreds of thousands of years. I’ve chosen a sequence of ten pieces to try and capture the variety and beauty of this ancient tradition, drawing from opera, oratorio, sacred music with orchestra, organ and unaccompanied, and written a little about each one. I hope you enjoy this music as much as I have.
Henry Purcell O sing unto the Lord
If I had to choose just one choral piece from all times and places, this might well be the one. Purcell says in the course of a ten-minute anthem as much as other composers say in a two-hour oratorio. In fact, this piece functions like a micro oratorio: opening with an orchestral ‘symphony’, it has solo moments, duets, quartets, orchestral dances and glorious full choruses, and is by turns joyful, triumphant, infectiously toe-tapping, lyrical, melancholic, heart-breaking and simply breathtakingly beautiful. I can’t imagine a more expressive or gorgeous recording than this one, made by Paul McCreesh with his Gabrieli Consort & Players.
Ruggero Leoncavallo Bell Chorus from Pagliacci
We travel to the far south of Italy for this stunning chorus, one of the absolute highlights of Italian opera. It’s a snapshot of rural life, as the church bells ring calling the people to the evening service: ‘Ding dong… Boys and girls in couples come to church… Everything is radiant with light and love, but your mothers are watching you, so beware!’ In an opera which ends with at least three of the main characters stabbing each other to death, this is a moment of simple joy and young love, evoking that glorious time of day when the hot Mediterranean sun is setting, the air is cooling and a summer evening beckons. As a bonus, we get a heart-stopping top B from Pavarotti during the intro.
Maurice Duruflé Introït & Kyrie from Requiem
Prepare to immerse yourself in a warm, restorative bath of French harmony and timeless beauty. Duruflé weaves the ancient plainsong melodies of the Requiem mass into a perfect fabric of melody and harmony that sounds like it has always been there. It manages to be so expressively human at the same time as hinting at an eternity beyond our imagination. I discovered this particular recording by George Guest and the choir of St John’s Cambridge thanks to my friend Bill, who rightly says “I think what makes the St John’s recording so good is the level of quality of the kids’ singing, made better because they are kids… perhaps the zaniness of a tremendously English church choir tackling the very not English music, but also it’s just a great performance from everyone.”
Johannes Brahms Wie lieblich sind deine Wohnungen from A German Requiem
This movement from Brahms’s German Requiem seems to me one of the warmest, most consoling pieces of music I could imagine. As it begins, the orchestra seems to open its arms and gather the listener in a smiling musical hug. Brahms creates a fusion between the intimate melody-and-accompaniment of the songs of Schubert and Schumann and the cosmic, sacred logic of the church music of Bach, and captures the human expressiveness of both. This marriage of old and new ways of making music sums up everything I love about Brahms in less than five minutes.
Giuseppe Verdi Auto-da-fé from Don Carlos
From the consolation of Brahms to Verdi’s unsettling depiction of the burning at the stake of heretics by the Spanish Inquisition: the ‘act of faith’ that gives this iconic operatic scene its title. The people sing praises to their king with bombast and a definite party atmosphere, before the monks (a classic Verdi moment for the Bass section of the Chorus) lead the condemned in, singing of the wrath of God. A fanfare and an exquisitely melodic march-tune starting in the trumpet herald the arrival of the king. I have great memories of working on this recording for Opera North, and some North East music fans might remember seeing this production of Don Carlos at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle.
John Taverner Dum transisset
This piece of sacred Easter choral music comes from a golden age of English music, which was in full flower by the time John Taverner was writing during the early reign of Henry VIII (when he was still on wife number one). Our choirs and their composers had marked out a different path from their continental counterparts, writing music with long, complex melodies, dominated by a groundbreaking new sound from the unbroken children’s voices, soaring high up in their voices in a way that seemed startlingly new and unusual. Listening to Stile Antico’s recording of this piece unfold feels magical to me: in terms of pure beauty this music and this singing is very hard to beat.
Joseph Haydn Insane et vanae curae
These days this chorus is performed as a standalone work, but it is taken from Haydn’s rare first oratorio, The Return of Tobias. Have you ever heard the story that the first performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was a little scratchy because he couldn’t get hold of the best musicians in Vienna? That’s because they were all down the road playing a performance of The Return of Tobias on the very same night. With the stark contrast between its stormy first theme (‘Insane and vain worries invade our minds’) and a tender, lyrical second theme (‘All things work in your favour with God on your side’), this chorus encapsulates the ‘Sturm und Drang’ (‘Storm and Stress’) movement of the 1770s, which was all about expressing extremes of emotion. As a choirboy of about nine, this was by far and away my favourite piece to sing.
Judith Weir Love bade me welcome
Master of the Queen’s Music, Judith Weir is perhaps best known for her writing for the operatic stage. Her writing for choirs is hugely varied and often beautifully mesmerising. In this piece, she sets the text of George Herbert’s poem with crystal clarity, her harmonies seeming to radiate light and colour like stained glass. It is one of the miracles of art that a composer working in the 1990s can form a retrospective partnership with a poet working in the 1620s that produces a joint work of art so intricately laced together. I love this piece so much, and it has become even more special to me since it was sung at my wedding.
Modest Mussorgsky Coronation Scene from Boris Godunov
The scene begins with an ominous low C before the brass instruments mimic the bells of the ancient Kremlin fortress by swinging between two pretty terrifying chords. The rest of the orchestra mimic more and more bells, pealing with increasing energy until actual physical bells begin to ring, and the sound builds to fever pitch. The gathered crowd praise their newly crowned Tsar with all the glory and splendour of the Russian choral style: the last word in monumental, timeless wall-of-sound singing. The bells are back, the trumpets are sounding, and everything culminates in thrilling, ecstatic cacophony.
Arnold Bax Mater ora filium
I wanted to finish with the sound of an unaccompanied choir, and still manage to have a grand finale, so enter Arnold Bax and his little-known vocal masterpiece, Mater ora filium. Shortly after the First World War, Bax was inspired by hearing the five-part mass by Elizabethan composer William Byrd. Setting a medieval prayer to the Virgin Mary, Bax opens with a brooding, bare medieval flavour and after a few simple phrases the choir sing ‘Amen’ and it feels like the end. Then follows 9 minutes of music which, in the words of critic Wilfrid Mellers, ‘lives in a wild sumptuous universe of its own creation, a world of fabulous magic to which Bax attains only once or twice in his whole prolific output’. It’s hard to think of a tougher test of any choir than this piece, sung fearlessly and brilliantly here by the Rodolfus Choir directed by Ralph Allwood.