Bingham – Landscapes, real and imagined.

Fifty Shades of Green, The Moon over Westminster Cathedral, The Cathedral of Trees, Chapman’s Pool, The Shadow Side of Joy Finzi, The Lost Works of Paganini – L’Usignolo, The Mystery of Boranup, Shelley Dreams, See and keep silent, My Father’s Arms

Known and admired particularly for her choral output, Judith Bingham is far from just a choral composer, so this release of chamber music from her pen is very welcome. Her imagination would seem to be frequently pictorial, triggered by poetic image, snap-shots – as the titles Fifty Shades of Green and The Moon over Westminster Cathedral confirm, even before one reads the extensive insert notes by Nigel Simeone and by the composer herself. Fifty Shades, a string trio written in 2001, turns out to have its origins in a painting by Rousseau. Whether green can be audible is a question for those with synesthesia to debate, but what is impressive here is the immediately involving, descriptive quality of the music. One is not, of course, entirely sure of what is being described, even with the broad hints of the movements’ titles, but there is what I can only call a sense of narrative at work, linking together the great diversity of atmosphere one encounters throughout the music’s duration and culminating in the unmistakeable appearance of the jaguar at the end. The Moon over Westminster Cathedral (2003) is a nocturne for solo piano, in which the composer, as NS notes, ‘tackles the tricky musical challenge of creating tension and resolution without using discords’. In this it is entirely successful, and the process results in a work that is haunting indeed.

Another descriptive work, a landscape, in fact, the piano trio Chapman’s Pool (2007) seems fleetingly to summon the shades of a number of other English composers (both Vaughan Williams and Britten come into mind, for example), and, without being in the slightest derivative, retains, at least for this listener, an elusive Englishness throughout. The final movement, ‘Chapman’s Pool and the Hale-Bopp Comet’, provides a luminous, moving apotheosis.

Rather different in character is the very brief (2’27”) The Mystery of Boranup (2002) for piano quartet – its evocation of the digeridoo with the cello playing sul ponticello is remarkable – surely the composer could be persuaded to extend it into a full-scale work? It may be the striking eeriness of Boranup that makes Shelley Dreams for violin and piano, written four years earlier, seem relatively conventional, but there are nevertheless some magnificently evocative things here, notably in the fourth movement, ‘Venice: Lagoon scene, moonlight, and the fifth, ‘Fire balloons, laden with knowledge’.

The collection also includes three vocal works (The Cathedral of Trees for solo soprano, The Shadow Side of Joy Finzi for solo soprano and piano, and My Father’s Arms for soprano and string trio) and pieces for solo violin and solo cello, respectively ‘L’Usignolo’ (2007-09), a firework, and See and keep silent (2009), a questing meditation. The vocal works, all of which are impressive, though I find My Father’s Arms (2002) the most outstanding, are sung to superb effect by the Korean soprano Yeree Suh, whose voice has simultaneously a razor-like incisiveness and a clarion beauty. The latter cycle is a setting of poems by Martin Shaw dealing with the very difficult subject of children in war. Like the poems, the music is unsentimental; its dark restlessness is a perfect match for the disturbing search for hope in Shaw’s words. The recording quality is as outstanding as the performances; Chamber Domaine is surely a group with which any composer would be ecstatic to work, and renditions of this calibre are no less than Bingham’s music deserves.

– Ivan Moody

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