Down by the Sea: A Collection of British Folk Songs (CD review)

Settings by Grainger, Holst, MacMillan, Moeran, Warlock, Vaughan Williams, and others. Hilary Campbell, Blossom Street. Naxos 8.573069.

No, it’s not the song by Men at Work. Nor is it part of the refrain from The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk.” It’s an album of classic British folk music, arranged for choir by various famous British composers.

Hilary Campbell, founder and director of the chamber choir Blossom Street, laments the dearth of British folk song on the concert platform, despite the public’s continued interest in the subject and the number of prominent British composers who have contributed to the field. Obviously, the present album is her attempt to amend this issue. Certainly, one could not find a better advocate of the genre.

In addition to leading the Blossom Street choir, Ms. Campbell is a freelance musician based in London, the Musical Director of the Music Makers of London, office choirs at L’Oreal and Hearst Magazines, Choral Director at Blackheath Conservatoire, and Assistant Conductor of Barts Choir. She is also the 2012-13 Meaker Fellow at the Royal Academy of Music, the first choral conductor so honored. Busy woman.

As far as concerns the Blossom Street choir, there appear to be between ten and twenty-three members. I say that because a booklet picture shows ten of them, and underneath the picture the booklet lists twenty-three: six sopranos, five altos, six tenors, and six basses. I suppose the number varies depending on the material they’re singing.

Of course, the composers on the album didn’t actually originate the folk songs for which they are famous. They collected them, arranged them, reset them, reinterpreted them, what have you. A folk song by definition is one that originates among the common people of a country and is passed on by oral tradition from one generation to the next, often existing in several different forms. Only these days, modern composers have often made their own folk-song arrangements the standards by which we have come to know them.

Anyway, Down by the Sea is a collection of folk and folklike songs with a nautical theme, all about sailors and whalers and often the girls they left behind. It begins with the tune you can hear an excerpt from below, “Lassie, Wad Ye Loe Me?” arranged by James MacMillan. Folk songs and poems are often big on dialect. See Robert Burns. The choir sing it like angels. Not only is there a remarkable smoothness to their presentation, there is a commendable integration of voices. The singers combine as one, strong and flexible, never losing focus. The four sections of the choir come through splendidly, each a distinct segment of the whole but with such seamlessness that you never notice them as separate entities unless forcing yourself to do so.

And so it goes through fifteen selections. Composers represented include the aforementioned MacMillan, plus Alexander Campkin, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Judith Bingham, Peter Warlock, John Duggan, Percy Grainger, Hilary Campbell, Gustav Holst, John Byrt, Stuart Murray Turnbull, Paul Burke, Kerry Andrew, Andrew Bairstow, and E.J. Moeran.  Moreover, seven of the songs make their debut on the album with world-première recordings.

Favorites? The opening number, to be sure. In addition, Warlock's "Yarmouth Fair," a snappy ditty; Grainger's setting of a traditional Scottish melody, "Mo Nighean Dubh" ("My Dark-Haired Maiden"), a really sweet love song; Holst's "Awake, Awake" in which the sopranos hold forth with wonderful supporting accompaniment from the others; Byrt's jaunty "Among the Leaves So Green, O." The last half dozen items on the program become quite hushed, the choir most evocative and atmospheric.  Then the album closes with Moeran's "The Sailor and Young Nancy," a fairly traditional folk tune from Norfolk about a sailor bound for the West Indies saying good-bye to his love, whom he promises to marry upon his return...if ever.

If there is any minor complaint I have about the album, it is that its fifteen tracks add up to less than an hour of music. I understand that rehearsing and recording more numbers would have cost more money, but, still, a CD can hold up to eighty minutes, making this disc’s fifty-five minutes seem a bit short. Just sayin’.

Naxos recorded the songs at St. Philip’s Church, Norbury, London in November 2012. The acoustic lends the choir plenty of reverberant air, making them sound like an even bigger group than they are. Yet the resonance takes little away from the clarity of the voices, just adding a greater degree of mellowness and space to the proceedings. The high end (upper midrange, actually) can sound a touch bright at times, but it is not especially distracting and probably contributes to the choir's overall definition. So, while it may be a tad too reverberant and occasionally too bright for some listeners, it is probably a fairly accurate representation of the singers in this church environment.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa