Review: The NMC Songbook

Review: The NMC Songbook

Various artists / The NMC Songbook / NMC D150

Harrison Birtwistle Various artists
The NMC Songbook
NMC D150

For a label that was set up with the decidedly recherché aim of celebrating contemporary British music (an aspiration whose reach was happily extended to encompass living Irish composers) and whose name alludes to its formation in what now sounds like a more antique age – the acronym stands for New Music CassettesNMC has established itself as a tireless champion of contemporary music and one of the great success stories of the British classical music industry.

Issued to mark the label’s twentieth anniversary, The NMC Songbook is, to say the least, an ambitious project. Across four generously programmed discs, 96 newly commissioned songs from a living lexicon of British and Irish composers testify to the abiding accomplishment of NMC founder Colin Matthew’s original vision, and, not least, to the variegated breadth and brilliance of several generations of enterprising compositional vitality.

As befits the label, the Songbook is composer led. So, established NMC names like Jonathan Harvey, Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt and Matthews himself are to be found alongside emerging talents such as Julian Anderson, Joe Cutler and Errollyn Wallen. There’s also new material from first-time NMC composer Peter Maxwell Davies, whose setting of the anonymous nursery rhyme ‘Labyrinth to Light’ for treble (Andrew Swait) and piano (Andrew Plant) is like a slow extended shiver down the spine.

While the piano supports the voice in the majority of the songs, the harp figures prominently in eleven, percussion in nine and the guitar in five while two benefit from harpsichord accompaniment. Soprano and baritone voices dominate, with eight settings for countertenor, one for treble and nine for duets.

The range of set texts spans the centuries to kaleidoscopic effect, the variegated musical settings themselves – in which virtually every stylistic ‘ism’ seems to find abundant expression – no less multi-coloured. As a one-stop health-check on the vitality of contemporary song, the Songbook offers copious reassurances about its vigour and verve.

From Robin Holloway’s cubist take on Quilter in ‘Go Lovely Rose’ to Gerald Barry’s doubling up as Jack and a deliciously gruff-voiced Lady Bracknell in ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, to the Dorset-accented ‘Easter Zunday’ of Sadie Harrison; from Thea Musgrave’s crisp and chilly setting of Robert Burns in ‘A Winter’s Morning’, to Michael Berkeley’s evocatively sensual ‘Echo: hommage à Francis Poulenc’; and from Nicholas Sackman’s audacious blending of medieval hocketting with Afro-Caribbean percussion in ‘Maiden in the Moor’, to the dislocating Stygian textures of Luke Stoneham’s ‘25’ for voice and electronics – and many, many other points in between – the Songbook sings out with a lusty voice.

Indeed, the achievement of the disc, despite the volume of contributors and the widely varied stylistic palette that results, is in the shining coherence of it all. This is as eloquent an example of pouring quarts into pint pots as you are likely to find.

A handsomely produced 60-page booklet includes lyrics and essays by Colin Matthews, pianist Iain Burnside (whose role in assigning songs to singers can’t be underestimated and who accompanies on many occasions throughout with characteristically nuanced intelligence), and, especially, the heroic programme compiler Bayan Northcott.

Published on 1 April 2009

Michael Quinn is a freelance music and theatre journalist based in Co. Down.

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