vOx Chamber Choir
David Crown conductor

NAXOS 8.574186

Alexander Campkin’s five choral works performed by the Oxford-based vOx Chamber Choir under David Crown are pretty much unique, although at first listening, I was reminded of the Kyrie or Lux Aeterna of György Ligeti.

Campkin’s harmonies, however, are more euphonious but still with more than a few surprising turns. His word setting is sometimes difficult to follow in particular with his use of rhythm in the opening piece.

I get the impression that it is the musical sound qualities of the words in the text that matter more to him than getting across the meanings, which are of course written out fully in the accompanying pamphlet.

The recording opens with the three movement True Light (2011) with its text from the Gospel of St. John – ‘In the beginning was the Word’. This is the only piece that uses the pitch-less tam-tam (different from the gong which has a definite musical pitch).

The work opens with organ and crescendo-ing tam-tam before the choir enters in wordless harmonies. All three sound sources are blended together producing a mystical atmospheric quality.

In many of the pieces, the music suggested a cathedral atmosphere – bell sounds, the projected colours of stained-glass windows, moving and changing in kaleidoscopic harmonic fluctuation.

The other large-scale work on the CD is Campkin’s Missa Brevis (2009). It is punctuated by two other shorter works. The First Kiss (2015) has the direction ‘Dreamful’ at the head of the score and it is certainly that. It was this piece that first suggested a kaleidoscope.

O Lord, in thee is all my trust has its text sung clearly by the male voices surrounded by softly sung clouds of harmony. Glorious, beauteous, golden bright, is a Christmas Carol setting but very far from what you would normally expect.

Nearest to more traditional ideas of text setting is the Missa Brevis though it still offers many harmonic twists and surprises. As is often the case, the Benedictus and Agnus Dei are the most instantly attractive.

For those interested in fresh and imaginative techniques of choral writing, with the voices treated more like sections of orchestral instruments than a choir, this CD is well worth hearing.

Review by Alan Cooper