I’m not sure how I’ve not come across the music of Howard Skempton before but it took a flyer for a disk with a setting of The Ancient Mariner to get my attention. I’m fascinated by what contemporary composers do with the broadly defined field of art song and Skempton’s piece is really interesting. He sets a mildly abridged version of the Coleridge but there’s enough to last past the half hour mark. The vocal writing is tonal, rhythmic and declamatory; hardly song at all in a way, but it supports the text rather well. It’s sung here by baritone Roderick Williams, for whom the piece was written. He has a clear, bright voice and the setting tends towards the upper end of the baritone range. He also has superb diction in the manner of the best of the “English school”. The result is complete comprehensibility for the text and full value for every word.
The accompaniment, played by members of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, is for piano quintet plus horn and double bass. It’s quite haunting; starting out on the strings and getting more complex after the shooting of the albatross. There’s another turning point at the “water snakes” passage where quite suddenly, as the curse is lifted, the music thins out to voice and the two violins and the harmonic structure simplifies. There are lots of felicitous moments like this and the accompanying documentation analyses them at some length.
The companion piece is a chamber work; Only the Sound Remains, scored for all sixteen players of the BCMG with Christopher Yates on viola taking a leading role. It too deals with memory and loss. Technically this is a twelve tone piece with four tone rows though, as each begins where the predecessor ends it’s actually a 45 note cyclic structure. This sounds academic but the result is quite beautiful. Sometimes it’s hypnotic, sometimes playful and with continual surprises. Despite the formal structure it’s more reminiscent of maybe Arvo Pärt than Arnold Schoenberg though it’s not an especially good comparison. Skempton has his own distinctive voice.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was recorded on 25th November 2016 at All Saints, Tooting while Only the Sound Remains was recorded on 27th November 2016 at CBSO Centre, Birmingham. In both cases the recording engineer and producer was David Lefeber. It’s a really good recording. Even on high quality (320k, 44.1kHz) mp3 it’s clear, detailed and solid. Flac (16 and 24) and physical CD are also available. The documentation is extensive and well worth reading. All in all a very worthwhile record.