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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa