Leighton Every Living Creature SOMMCD 0667

Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988)
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)
Nativitie (1956)
A Hymn to the Trinity (1979)
Londinium, Finchley Children’s Music Group/Andrew Griffiths
Rebecca Lea, Nina Bennet (soprano), Ciara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano), Nick Pritchard (tenor)
rec. 2022, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London.
All sung texts included.
Reviewed as a WAV download.
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0667 [73]

Kenneth Leighton’s output includes orchestral, chamber and keyboard music, but this release emerges amongst a handful of recordings that have helped establish his reputation as a master of sacred choral music. This superbly performed and recorded album from the Somm label is profiled as a collection of ‘neglected choral gems’, and the premiere recordings of Laudes Animantium and other smaller pieces is certainly proof that there is still much to be discovered from this composer’s pen.

Animals have figured in modern choral writing before, but Leighton’s idiom goes nowhere near avant-garde imitations of animal noises. This is a sublime set of eight movements that, as the composer wrote, “attempts to give musical expression… to the contrasting attitudes with which we approach the animal world – attitudes which may be merely neutral, emotional or philosophical and religious. The genitive of the title is purposely ambiguous, since the eight poems range from simple praises of the creatures to a final hymn of praise by the creatures.”

Laudes Animantium is one of those pieces that, once discovered, you will want to keep near to hand for whenever you need a dose of true English choral music. Equal to the music of Howells and inhabiting a comparable atmosphere, with here and there a hint of Frank Martin, this is top-notch music. The opening Prelude sets up a mood of mystery along with lyrical expressiveness and rock-solid word setting, and you know you are in for a treat. Setting poets from Edward Lear to William Blake and numerous others in between, there is playful and rhythmic material to go along with more intimate, introverted sections. All the solos are perfectly balanced and ideally expressive, not holding back on a full dynamic range while contrasting with velvety choral backdrops. Each movement runs directly into the next, and the flow of the whole makes a highlight of the entirety, rather than encouraging us to pick out favourites. There are no weak spots, and following the printed texts with the music will tell you much about how inventive Leighton’s settings are.

The same goes for the rest of the pieces in this recording. An evening hymn is a beautiful and moving setting of words by Sir Thomas Browne that stops you in your tracks at “Sleep is a death; oh! make me try, by sleeping, what it is to die”. London Town picks us back up with the cheery momentum of poetry by John Masefield, and this nicely programmed trilogy is rounded off with Lord, When the Sense of Thy Sweet Grace, a powerful statement in music and words by Richard Crashaw. The relatively early Three Carols are gorgeously lyrical and full of subtle personal touches that lift them beyond the limitations of expected convention, while observing the tenderness of the chosen words. The final Nativitie to a poem by John Donne weaves the dense text with suitably intensity, while somehow maintaining an admirable clarity and an expressive directness that goes straight to the heart.

This recording is both a balm to the soul and an inspiring reminder of the infinite potential of choral music to speak to our emotions and stir our imaginations. With such superb performances and a perfectly produced recording, this is an album to treasure.

Dominy Clements

Previous review: Nick Barnard (June 23)

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