It all started in Bath. In the abbey, at a lunchtime concert, a young visiting choir from South Africa filled the ancient space with song. I sat, stunned at the beauty of it. Then, in a tiny shop near the Pulteney Bridge, a familiar sound crackling out of an old ghetto blaster nudged my ears: Radio 3 playing Butterworth’s English pastoral: ‘The Banks of Green Willow’.
For some reason I’d eschewed classical music for longer than I can justify. The 1980s were all about pop, new wave, post-punk and Motown revival; the 1990s were spent mostly revisiting the folk/singer-songwriter canon and 1970s soul.
Where had my yen for classical gone?
The new millennium was taken up with discovering new sounds, again predominantly singer-songwriter, but also alt.country and ambient electronica.
Where had my yen for classical gone?
I’d lost all those tapes I’d played into the ground as a student: Ashkenazy’s recordings of Chopin’s Nocturnes; that Deutsche Grammophon recording of Prokofiev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, conducted by Rostropovich, which a friend borrowed and never gave back… Sibelius, Vivaldi, Albinoni, and too many more.
When I returned from Bath I dug out a Hyperion recording of Duruflé’s ‘Requiem and Four Motets’ which the author and music journalist Nick Coleman had gifted me years ago, and realised that one of the pieces the choristers had sung in the abbey was the first motet: the ethereal ‘Ubi Caritas et Amor’.
Things started to fall into place. I began to hunt out the pieces I’d missed; it took a little while to find the right stuff.
I wasn’t pleased with the first recording of Butterworth I found: Sir Adrian Boult’s version from 1964 rushed the work in places and, to be honest, showed its age. It belted out of my hifi like a soundtrack to a mid-century melodrama. Instead, the later 1988 digital Nimbus recording, conducted by William Boughton, delivered in spades: so sympathetic to the composer and skilfully executed, it gave the piece room to breathe and unfold. Listening to it was sheer joy.
Next was Vaughan Williams. I tracked down the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s spectacular recording of ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’ and ‘The Lark Ascending’ with Tamsin Little on first violin, whom I recognised from a recording of Arvo Pärt’s exquisite meditation, ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’. Not having heard the ‘Fantasia’ in a good while, I was struck by its power: this kind of pastoral certainly isn’t passive. According to his contemporaries, Vaughan Williams was a larger-than-life bear of a man, and it certainly comes across in his composition.
However, there was one composer with whom I was yet to be reunited. In 2000 I sung alto in Fauré’s ‘Requiem’ at St Bride’s in London’s Fleet Street. It’s a lovely church, and my all-time favourite choral piece.
The human voice can evoke strong reactions
The human voice has a capacity to evoke strong reactions: bypassing the rational mind, reaching a part of us that we don’t always fully understand.
I believe that as we get older we become more aware of the significance of our feelings. It’s not that we don’t experience things profoundly throughout our lives; simply that as we mature, perhaps we recognise them more completely. We are touched by people and places, and especially by loss. When music tugs at your heartstrings, it’s always for a reason.
Like Duruflé, Fauré took a different tack when it came to composing his mass for the dead. An agnostic who, ironically, made his career in church music, he chose to focus instead on the comforting aspect of the requiem experience rather than going high church, like Mozart, or focusing on the terror and dread of meeting your maker.
For Fauré, devotional didn’t necessarily have to mean devout. The movements are so beautiful and poignant – in particular, the Sanctus and Pie Jesu – that quite frankly if anyone does fail to be moved by them, they probably are the dearly departed.
Step forward the LSO and Tenebrae’s 2013 version on SACD. Conducted by Nigel Short and recorded in St Giles’ Cripplegate, London, this cut has drawn enthusiastic praise from critics and aficionados alike, and is worth every minute. For me, hearing it was like coming home.
My journey continues. I have a steadily increasing list, some from tuning into Radio 3’s specialist classical chart. Auditioning different recordings to find the right one is a genuine pleasure. I’ve already discovered some divine modern choral by Steven Layton and Polyphony in a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Karl Jenkins’ ‘Motets’. And happily, I’ve finally been reunited with Ashkenazy’s double CD recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes and Ballades on Decca.
While contemporary music remains at the hearth and heart of my collection, there will always be room for classical to beckon me in, pull up a chair and enthral with its quiet passion, grace and fire.