Neil Ferris conductor


Having recently reviewed the new publication marking the composer’s centenary, it has been a pleasure to encounter this third issue of his music from the confident and enterprising chamber choir, Sonoro.

Dodgson’s scores are assured and individual, while being somewhat akin to Leighton (especially in the writing for organ) or late Howells. Certainly, the resonant voicing of his last choral composition, Canticle of the Sun, a visionary setting of Auden-inspired lyricism by the devout John Heath-Stubbs, not only discloses a craftsman attuned to vocal writing, but one thinking primarily in instrumental terms. The well-drilled Sonoro handle its demands with ease, making a strong case for this spacious, sinewy and celebratory work, and their diction is excellent. 

Four Poems of Mary Coleridge, written in 1987 for chorus with obbligato flute, is far removed from the pastoral trifles with piping descants that might be expected from the title. The booklet notes by Robert Matthew-Walker state that the combination is surely unique (although a quick search reveals several other examples, including by the ubiquitous Rutter), but surely there are few as imaginative.

The flute is fully integrated into the scoring, and among its memorable passages is a sinuous motif, ending with a fluttertongue, in an extended dialogue with solo baritone (the admirable Jon Stainsby). There is great urgency in Thistledown I; the opening of the third poem, beginning ‘Come, long-awaited Dawn’, is gifted with a glorious supplicatory choral phrase; the fourth, with its chanting repetitions of ‘On a day, and on a day’, is perhaps the most Brittenesque.  

’Tis Almost One, a mini-cantata comprising five well-contrasted settings of Herrick for choir and organ, is a substantial and impressive creation. The first movement, for choir alone, utilises relatively simple hymn-like harmonies – which, together with the text, rather suggested an extract from Vaughan Williams’s Pilgrim’s Progress.

Michael Higgins draws delicious registrations from the splendid Walker instrument at St John the Evangelist, Islington (where Malcolm Williamson was organist in the early 1980s), heralding Cock-Crow with fiery French reeds, generating spiky gestures for the breathtaking meditation, Weigh me the fire (Herrick’s personal take on verses from the Book of Job), and showcasing its sparkling and liquescent flutes to scatter beams of light from the Bell-Man’s lantern. 

Three minor essays for SSA are undated, but probably originate from very early in Dodgson’s career. Winter and Lullaby are both piquant and effective, but the seven strophic stanzas of the carol, All bells in Paradise (a variety of the Corpus Christi Carol) rather outstay their welcome: a greater range of dynamics and careful pointing of the words might have aided matters.

The curious text of Lines from Hal Summers is an odd but effective assemblage from various unrelated poems, from which Dodgson forges a great arch of choral virtuosity, climaxing with an energetic envoi Sing for Ever. Despite the aplomb with which this is dispatched, it did not wholly convince me, but the superb settings of Coleridge and Herrick undoubtedly deserve far greater dissemination. I hope that a fourth volume is on the way. 

Review by Andrew Plant