February 17, 2016

Beyond Arcady and Bethlehem

The National Girls Choir of Scotland (Photo: Drew Farrell)

The National Girls Choir of Scotland (Photo: Drew Farrell)




NYCoS National Girls Choir

Karen Cargill, mezzo soprano; Philip Moore, piano; Christopher Bell, conductor

Signum Classics


Michael Head is best known, perhaps only known, for his songs “The Little Road to Bethlehem” and “The Ships of Arcady” (in fact he wrote over 120 songs). But this album on Signum Classics, Only a Singing Bird, showcases another side to Head, his music for female choir. The National Youth Choirs of Scotland’s National Girls Choir, conducted by Christopher Bell with pianist Philip Moore, sing a selection of Head’s music for female choir and piano, including arrangements of his best known songs, and the ensemble is joined by mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill for the first recording of Head’s cantata Snowbirds setting poetry by Sri Ananda Acharya. The disc is rounded off with pieces by Gary Carpenter, Ken Johnston and Stephen Deazley.

Sri Ananda Acharya’s poetry (published in 1919) shares with that of Rabindranath Tagore an interesting combination of religious intent with an imagery and specificity that provides an interesting otherness to Western ears. Snowbirds started with Michael Head’s setting of two poems for SSA choir and piano in 1953, and he later added further movements to create this choral cantata.

NYCoS National Girls Choir with mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and Phillip Moore (piano) in the recording sessions for Only a Singing Bird. Includes interview snippets with Ms. Cargill and conductor Christopher Bell.

‘Ave Maria’ from Michael Head’s Three Sacred Songs. NYCoS National Girls Choir with Phillip Moore (piano) and Christopher Bell (conductor), from Only a Singing Bird

The solo role is not the largest feature of the work and Karen Cargill has to share the spotlight with the choir and there are other smaller solo roles too. Head’s music for the choir is finely crafted with lovely intertwining vocal lines supported by the rhythmic filigree of the piano. When he adds the solo to this mix, as in the first movement The Bird of Morn, the result can be magical, and this darkly evocative movement reminded me a little of Frank Bridge. The musical style remains firmly in he English folk terrain, though finely written. The choir makes a lovely even and admirably flexible sound, but by the end of the cantata I found myself noticing the moments when Head ventured beyond his default texture of long lyrical vocal lines and accompanying piano rhythm, such as the elegiac dialogue for mezzo-soprano and baritone in Spring Grass, and the dramatic narrative of the final song, King Ra. The additional solos in the cantata are provided by Christina Callion, Rebecca Pennykid, Catriona Hewitson, Alan Rowland, and Alice Yeoman

The choir follows this with a trio of songs by Gary Carpenter, The Food of Love–Book 2 setting Shakespeare. The first two songs, “Spring” and “Under the Greenwood Tree,” take Michael Head’s textures but add some welcome complexity to the harmonies, while the final song, “Winter,” has an appealing Latin American rhythmic undertow.

Stephen Deazley’s ‘The Circus,’ as performed by NYCoS National Girls Choir on Only a Singing Bird

Michael Head’s ‘The Robin’s Carol,’ as performed by NYCoS National Girls Choir on Only a Singing Bird

The next group mixes Michael Head’s original work for female choir and piano, with arrangements of his solo songs. “Funny Fellow” has lively charm whereas the arrangements of “The Ships of Arcady” and “The Little Road to Bethlehem” are lovely and make a beautiful change of sound quality from the solo versions. “The Robin’s Carol” and “Star Candles” are charming and folk-ish pieces but with “Ave Maria” from Three Sacred Songs (1954) we get a striking change of style with a certain austerity and clarity to the music, and the piece is sung with great poise by the choir. I rather wanted to hear the other two sacred songs as well.

Ken Johnston is a Scottish composer who has worked regularly wit the choir. His “Bonnie Wee Thing” and “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” are from songbooks produced by the choir for which composers wrote a trio of songs, one pentatonic, one diatonic with accidentals and the other diatonic with no accidental. These two are Johnston’s pentatonic ones and both exhibit great charm and imagination in their treatment of the pentatonic scale. Finally “The Circus” by Stephen Deazley, one of the diatonic (without accidentals) songs from the songbook project. It is a lively and fun piece, sung with great enthusiasm and patent enjoyment by the choir.

Ken Johnston’s ‘The Wind That Shakes Barley,’ as performed by NYCoS National Girls Choir on Only a Singing Bird

Michael Head’s ‘Only a Singing Bird’ from his choral cantata Snowbirds, a setting of poetry by Sri Ananda Acharya, as performed by NYCoS National Girls Choir on Only a Singing Bird

The National Youth Choirs of Scotland National Girls Choir, under Christopher Bell’s direction, is in great form on this disc, singing with clarity of line and flexible, even tone. Throughout, Philip Moore provides admirably supportive accompaniment. That the disc is of interest to more than just the supporters of the choir is thanks to the presence of Michael Head’s cantata, given a nice gloss by the presence of Karen Cargill.


Reprinted by permission of Robert Hugill, a contemporary classical composer based in London. Recent performances of his works have included sacred motets, orchestral music and a one-act opera. Click here for his full biography. For more of Mr. Hugill’s classical reviews and interviews, visit Planet Hugill—A World of Classical Music.