Leighton Every Living Creature SOMM

Kenneth Leighton (1929-1988)
Every Living Creature
Laudes Animantium Op.61
An evening hymn (1979)
London Town (1968)
Lord, When the sense of the Sweet Grace (1977)
Three Carols (1948)
The Nativitie (1956)
A Hymn to the Trinity (1979)
Rebecca Lea (soprano), Nina Bennet (soprano), Ciara Hendrick (mezzo-soprano), Nick Prichard (tenor)
Finchley Children’s Music Group/Grace Rossiter
Londinium/Andrew Griffiths
rec. 2022, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London, UK
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0667 [73]

If you have a strong interest in Kenneth Leighton’s works, or indeed in twentieth-century British choral music, then you may know the twenty-years-old recording of his sacred choral music which St. John’s College Cambridge made for Naxos. The good news is that there is no repetition. The new disc actually includes five first recordings, among them Laudes Animantium, which lasts almost half an hour.

Like Benjamin Britten, Leighton takes his texts from a variety of sources and periods. The work consists of eight pieces on the subject of animals. That apparently was Leighton’s particular interest, especially his dogs. He preferred them to people, rather like Walt Whitman – whose words appear on the first track – favoured animals. The last movement, which gives the disc its title, sets a fragment of Noah’s Floud by Michael Drayton (1563-1631). Other poets include William Blake’s Tyger, Tyger and The Lamb, and Lord Alfred Tennyson’s extraordinarily disturbing The Kraken. There also is a setting of Calico Pie by Edward Lear The Grey Squirrel Humbert Wolfe. They both act as scherzos. Especially beautiful to my ear is the setting of The Nightingale by a poet I was unaware of, Joshua Sylvester (1563-1618). It incorporates something that approaches birdsong, scored for the tenor and soprano soloists.

In the finale, the animals walk into Noah’s Ark. The soloists have some complex polyphony, but it is when the fresh children’s voices appear that the textures open out into a joyous Britten-like chanting. The biblical text ‘O ye works of the Lord, bless ye the Lord’ makes the final bars ecstatic. It seems incredible that until quite recently this work was still lying about in manuscript.

You may wonder why, with several works by Leighton in the general cathedral repertoire, three of the anthems recorded here are so little known. An evening hymn written for Chichester would need some considerable rehearsal time and a strong solo soprano/treble. It is a setting of a text by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), with a fast and intense central section wrapped in quiet and thoughtful outer sections. The final line ‘Sleep again, but wake forever’ sums up the piece perfectly.

The mystic Richard Crashaw (1613-1649) was Browne’s contemporary. Leighton set his poem Lord, When the Sense of Thy Sweet Grace – with a soaring solo soprano line  in 1977 for Ampleforth Abbey. One his finest works, it digs deeply into the inner meaning of the text, ‘Thou still I dy, I live again’.

The anonymous Hymn to the Trinity shows Leighton in a more joyous and rhythmic mood. The piece was written for an Oxford University Press anthology in 1974. It is a good choice to end this well-filled disc.

Five works here are suitable for Christmas and Epiphany. Of the Three Carols of 1948 only one is well known and performed: the moving Lully, Lulla thou tiny little child, a setting of medieval words. Two anthems had stayed in manuscript: much simpler, strophic setting of The Seven Joys of Mary, and the more ‘Warlockian’ Sleep Holy Babe. They would be suitable for amateur choirs. The setting of Nativitie with words by John Donne is a deeply yearning work, beyond most amateur choirs. The solo soprano part benefits from the wonderful tone of Rebecca Lea, whose voice soars over the searching harmonies.

Not all Leighton’s choral works are sacred. There is the premiere recording of London Town, to a poem by John Masefield (1878-1967). It is a clever setting. The odd-numbered verses, set very rhythmically for the full choir, tell us of the pleasure of visiting London. The even-numbered verses, for a soloist, tell us how the poet prefers country life, his own landscape of the South Midlands – Malvern, Ludlow, Bredon. The received its first performance in 1969 by the New London Singers.

It is wonderful that the children’s voices of the Finchley Children’s Music Group were a part of this recording. They are in peak form when they appear in the last section of Laudes Animatium.

Londinium, founded in 2005, is a non-professional choir, although you would not know it. They and Andrew Griffith are especially interested in diverse but also neglected music which, as these pieces, deserve to be heard and performed. They make an impressive sound, with hardly a blemish of intonation or ensemble. It will be fascinating to see where they go next.

Texts are included, alongside an excellent essay by conductor Andrew Griffiths; it significantly helped me with the review. Griffiths outlines the salient events in Leighton’s life and briefly analyses each piece.

Gary Higginson

Previous reviews: Nick Barnard (June 2023) ~ Dominy Clements (July 2023)

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