I first discovered the music of Ivor Gurney when I was in my first year at music college and heard Sleep performed in a lunchtime recital. I immediately fell in love with the piece. I remember thinking that it was utterly perfect, and heading straight to the library to discover more of his songs, various of which made it into my own recital programmes over the next four years. It wasn’t until almost a decade later in 2013 that I was introduced to his choral writing, when I sang Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty with Tenebrae at Gloucester Cathedral. It was in this same concert that we premiered Judith Bingham’s A Walk with Ivor Gurney, with Dame Sarah Connolly singing the substantial mezzo-soprano solo. Gurney was a poet as well as a composer, and Judith Bingham had woven together fragments of various of his poems contemplating the Gloucestershire countryside. The soloist and the upper voices sing these texts, whilst the men, always hidden from view making them somewhat ghostly, sing Latin inscriptions from the tombs of Roman soldiers. The chromaticism in the writing for the upper voices over the first few pages creates a really captivating sound world from the very start, and the piece really made an impression on me.
Last year, Nigel told me that he had included A Walk with Ivor Gurney in We Will Remember Them (his WW1 commemoration programme), and asked me to sing Sarah’s part. I was thrilled to be asked, but also a little daunted by the prospect! I usually sing alto two for Tenebrae and often live below the stave, so I knew it would be quite a gear-change as a step-out solo. A lot of it is a good octave higher than almost anything else I sing in the concert, and it requires quite a different noise! I was up for the challenge, though, so set to work. I sat down with the poetry before I sat down at the piano, making sure I really understood the texts and reading the full versions of as many of the poems as I could find. Then I really familiarised myself with the harmony and worked out where it was going and where I fit in. Judith really understands voices, and it’s lovely to sing. I thoroughly enjoyed getting inside the piece, and was excited to put it together with the choir at the first rehearsal.
Nigel has put together a fantastic programme in We Will Remember Them. It’s full of absolute masterpieces. I particularly love the way he interprets Howells’ Take Him Earth for Cherishing and Parry’s Songs of Farewell, and find them incredibly moving. I sometimes find it a tricky balancing act to be involved enough to do these pieces justice, but not so moved that I stand there weeping with a larynx far too high to be of any use for singing! The programme finishes with Schoenberg’s epic Friede auf Erden. This makes for an emotionally draining evening, but it’s such fantastic music that it’s always completely worth it.
So far, we’ve taken this programme to Leatherhead, Snape Maltings, Millfield School, Perth and Hereford. This week we take it to Germany, and next month, to Exeter and Truro. I’m particularly looking forward to this, as I grew up in the South West, and still have family there. Because I spend so much time on the road, I don’t get back home as often as I would like. It’s always good when work provides an excuse for a visit. It’s also a rare opportunity for me to bring my Grannie to a concert to hear me sing!
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed touring A Walk with Ivor Gurney standing out front, but I’m also very much looking forward to rejoining Tenebrae standing behind Dame Sarah Connolly when she sings it with us at the Wigmore Hall in October. It’s always a luxury when you get some pieces off, and for part of this concert, I will be delighted to be an audience member sitting and listening to some world-class musicians do their thing. Sleep remains a firm favourite to this day, and I know I’m in for a treat listening to Sarah and Eugene Asti perform it. I can’t wait!