Leighton Every Living Creature SOMM Recordings

Kenneth Leighton (1929-88)
Every Living Creature 
Laudes Animantium Op.61 (1971)
An evening hymn (1979)
London Town (1968)
Lord, When the Sense of Thy Sweet Grace (1977)
Three Carols (1948): Lully, lulla, thou tiny little child; The seven joys of Mary; Sleep, Holy Babe
Nativitie (1956)
A Hymn to the Trinity (1974)
Rebecca Lea, Nina Bennet (soprano), Ciara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano), Nick Pritchard (tenor)
Finchley Children’s Music Group, Londinium/Andrew Griffiths
rec. 2022 All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0667 [73]

Kenneth Leighton is not a staple composer whose music I listen to with great regularity.  But every time I do, I am struck all over again at the sheer quality, inventiveness, beauty and craft of his work.  And that is exactly my response to this new disc of his choral music from SOMM.  The forty-eight voices of Londinium under their director Andrew Griffiths build upon the excellent impression they made on their SOMM debut disc in 2018 [can it really be nearly five years?!] titled “The Gluepot Connection” which I made one of my recordings of the year.  SOMM use the same venue and same production and engineering team – Adrian Peacock and David Hinitt – and the results both in terms of performance and production are equally impressive.

Londinium are a non-professional chamber choir but the technical execution and musicianship is of the highest level.  Andrew Griffiths again provides the enthusiastic and detailed liner note.  He makes several key points worth reiterating.  In his youth, Leighton spent five years as a chorister in Wakefield Cathedral which Griffiths sees as a defining formative experience.  Not just in terms of understanding, literally from the inside, what makes choral music “work” but also gaining an appreciation of the power and impact choral music can have on both performers and listeners – especially within a church setting.  Griffiths also mentions that singers enjoy singing this music which when you hear the rich textures, intricate interplay and skilful word-setting seems wholly understandable.  This generous recital running to 73:21 includes both sacred and secular works with some five items – including the large-scale Laude Animantium – receiving premiere recordings which in total represent roughly two thirds of the total playing time.  

The disc’s main work – the aforementioned Laude Animantium – opens the disc.  In eight movements this is an anthology work which celebrates the animal kingdom in general and specific creatures in each movement.  Griffiths expresses surprise that this major work remains unrecorded and indeed unpublished until now.  Unusually for Leighton this was a work that he did not write to commission so he produced a work that fitted his vision rather than one written for a specific choir or occasion.  Musically the result is absolutely wonderful but practically it must be something of a nightmare to perform.  This is a half hour work written for a-cappella double choir plus three demanding solo parts plus a children’s chorus crowning the work’s moving closing movement.  Simply put I cannot think there are many choirs with the technical or financial resources to stage the work.  The technical demands on the main choir and the soloists are pretty unrelenting although the results here are both beautiful and moving.  Luckily in Londinium under Griffiths the work receives a performance which is completely convincing and compelling.  The contributions from the soloists; sopranos Rebecca Lea and Nina Bennet, mezzo Clara Hendrick and tenor Nick Pritchard are equally impressive with Lea’s crystalline soprano gracing several other works on the disc as well.

Leighton found all of the texts bar one in the Penguin Book of Animal Verse published in 1965 which had as its cover the same image used for this CD.  Leighton selected a wide range of famous verse including poems by Whitman, Edward Lear, Blake, Tennyson and Wolfe.  Each setting focuses on a specific animal from Tennyson’s The Kraken to Blake’s Tyger [burning bright…] but the selected poems allow a range of contrasting musical and emotional expression.  Individually the settings are wonderfully crafted and characterful but the work’s greatest success is the sense of whole with the closing Every Living Creature not only the longest setting but a musical and emotional culmination of what has come before.  All crowned by the entrance of the children’s chorus singing a fairly simple counter melody surrounded by choral Alleluias which is faintly reminiscent of the closing pages of Britten’s Spring Symphony.  Earlier in the work Leighton achieves great variety of choral texture and effect by judicious use of the soloists including a very touching setting of Blake’s The Lamb which includes two child sopranos – sung with artless simplicity here by Arielle Loewinger and Madelaine Napier.  Two scherzo movements – Lear’s Calico Pie and Wolfe’s The Grey Squirrel – are contrasted by Tennyson’s lumbering The Kraken or Blake’s famous but nightmarish The Tyger.  Leighton’s setting of The Nightingale by Joshua Sylvester is another jewel with solo soprano and tenor intertwining in gentle ecstasy beautifully capturing the poem’s “Rapt with delight of their delicious Aiers”.  Leighton opens the work with part of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself with its prescient and rather unnerving observations that the animal kingdom is ultimately ‘wiser’ than nominally civilised humanity.  Leighton was in his early forties and at the height of his considerable powers when he wrote this work.  The very fact that it was not written at the behest of anyone else suggests a piece the composer felt compelled to create and which, to quote Griffiths, “display[s] Leighton’s choral writing at its consummate best”.

But it is says something about the stature and consistent quality of Leighton’s writing that in the other works presented here, while not on the same scale, there is an instinctive aptness in the settings and skilled understanding of choral writing that makes each work effectively satisfying.  The longest single work on the disc is the 9:12 An evening hymn has appeared on other recordings – one on Hyperion by the choir of St. Pauls for example – is a powerful and moving prayer to God to protect the supplicant both this coming night and as a metaphor for death and eternal life to come.  Here and throughout the disc Londinium and Andrew Griffiths are not just technically impressively secure but they imbue their singing with exactly the right combination of fervour expressed through restraint.  Leighton writes with a fairly consistently high level of harmonic dissonance and rhythmic complexity.  So for singers this requires accuracy and security in both pitch and rhythm but without sacrificing the expressive intent.  Likewise Leighton often writes in “layers” with quite distinct musical strands and textures overlapping – perhaps a solo line accompanied by choral murmurings or intertwining texts.  Griffiths gets his choir to balance these with unfailingly effective results.  Masefield’s London Town receives another premiere recording.  Here the poet contrasts the dynamism and colour of life in a busy city with the simpler pleasures of the country.  As with all of the music on the disc this is an a-capella setting and Leighton clearly relishes the opportunity to find choral solutions to illustrate the contrasts expressed in the poem.  This also allows the choir to display their excellent articulation of often tricky texts [all included in the booklet in their original English only] which they do throughout.  This is an enjoyable and vigorous display piece although one that does not aim for the greater emotional depths explored elsewhere.  Lord, When the Sense of Thy Sweet Grace – another premiere – is one such deeper work.  This was a 1977 commission for Ampleforth Abbey and a real discovery.  Soprano Rebecca Lea sings with disarmingly beautiful rapt purity accompanied by the choir.  The text by Richard Crashaw (c.1613-49) combines religious fervour with sensual imagery that suggests more than just ecstatic faith; “for while thou sweetly slayest me, Dead to my selfe, I live in Thee.”  Again part of Leighton’s genius is to take this 17thcentury text and find a contemporary mode of expression quite out of time and place but wholly apt.

The Three Carols of 1948 include one of Leighton’s most popular and best-known works; Lully, lulla, thou tiny little child.  Clearly Leighton’s talent and own voice was formed early in his career with these carols written before he was twenty.  As might be expected of ‘simpler’ carols the harmonic language is less complex and the part writing likewise.  But all three are again genuinely delightful examples of his finely honed craft – the greater surprise is that two of the three are premiere recordings.  The disc is completed by two previously recorded works; the 1956 Nativite which allows Rebecca Lea to sing radiantly one last time.  Griffiths’ neat description is a perfect summation; “Leighton’s music… captur[es] perfectly the poet’s combination of tenderness and awe”.  The disc is completed by the vigorous and uplifting A Hymn to the Trinity which ends with pealing cries of “Amen” and one final unambiguous cadence – something you do not always get in Leighton!

Leighton’s musical language is on one hand personal and unique yet he is also clearly part of the rich tradition of British 20th Century music for choirs.  His part-writing is complex and virtuosic requiring singers confident in their own musical lines but also profoundly aware of their part in the greater whole.  He operates at quite a high level of unresolving dissonance which makes the rare common chord resolutions feel even richer and warmer than they might otherwise be.  Londinium’s vocal security and strong sense of musical line are big pluses in this music.  There are several other fine collections of Leighton’s choral music but the majority of these if not all focus on his sacred music.  The disc’s combination of the sacred and secular not only increases the listener’s appreciation of the composer’s range and craft but also makes for a deeply rewarding programme in its own right.  As ever the SOMM production and presentation is a model of how to do this kind of thing right.

All in all another highly impressive disc from everyone concerned with unfamiliar but compelling music performed with skill and insight.

Nick Barnard

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