Michael Hurd: Choral Music Volume 1

His early education took place at Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester. National Service with the Intelligence Corps involved a posting to Vienna, where he developed a burgeoning passion for opera. He studied at Pembroke College, Oxford (1950-53) with Sir Thomas Armstrong and Dr Bernard Rose and became President of the University Music Society. In addition, he took composition lessons from Lennox Berkeley, whose Gallic sensibility may be said to have influenced Hurd’s own musical language.

Hurd’s love of literature and the human voice illuminated a natural talent for wordsetting. Hence his catalogue is dominated by choral and vocal works, including operas, ‘pop’ cantatas, songs and anthems. He was especially noted for his many scores for children and amateurs, and his care to ensure that the material he wrote was within the reach of non-professional singers and accompanists accords with his conviction that composers should adopt a practical approach to their craft.

These ‘rhythmic and harmonies subtleties’ are readily discernible in Hurd’s choral works. The sacred and secular examples presented here range from brief anthems to substantial settings of his favourite poetry. They are all indicative of a desire to engage singers and listeners instantly and a natural aptitude for enhancing the text. Paul Conway



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The most substantial offering is Night Songs of Edward Thomas, a collection of eight settings for unaccompanied SATB choir of poems by Thomas. These settings, it seems to me, are worthy to rank highly in the list of English part songs. I noted with interest before I listened for the first time Paul Conway’s comment that these pieces “illustrate Hurd’s concern to allow the words to guide the music.” All of them are impressive responses to the poetry of Thomas. I particularly liked the fluent, lovely setting of Two Pewits while the spare, eloquent music to which Hurd sets Lights Out, one of Thomas’s most celebrated poems, strikes me as an inspired response to the text.

Five Spiritual Songs uses poems by George Herbert: three of the poems were also used by Vaughan Williams in his Five Mystical Songs. Hurd’s music is for unaccompanied SATB choir. . He opens with a strong setting of Antiphon (‘Let all the world in ev’ry corner sing’). The second piece, The Pulley, is a mellifluous composition and I like the use of a most unexpected chord on the very last word in the piece. Hurd’s response to The Call is, as Paul Conway says, resolute while the concluding Exultation (‘Rise heart, thy Lord is risen’) is properly exultant. These are very good settings.

The Missa Brevis is for upper voices (SSAA) and organ. It was dedicated to Lennox Berkeley and his wife. Sir Lennox was enthusiastic about the piece, describing it as “skilfully written for the voices” and expressing particular admiration for the Agnus Dei. As will be seen from the overall timing, it’s a concise composition. The Gloria is the longest movement; its outer sections are festive in tone. I can see why Hurd’s former teacher admired the Agnus; here the music seems to me to evidence what I might call poised fervour. As befits a work dedicated to Berkeley, the music is attractive and elegant throughout.

Merciles Beaute is a collection of three Chaucer settings for unaccompanied SATB choir. Thoughtfully, Hurd provided a modern English paraphrase of Chaucer’s texts for choirs who might be daunted by medieval English: rightly, the original texts are sung here. A Parley of Owls is the witty title for a set of three unaccompanied SATB songs in which Hurd uses poems by three different writers on the subject of owls. These are short, attractive compositions.

The opening piece, A Secular Anthem, conflates two poems by seventeenth century English poets, Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell. The texts sit well together and the piece, which is for SATB and organ, is a fine one.

I’ve enjoyed making the acquaintance of all the pieces on this disc. Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers are enthusiastic advocates for the pieces. It must be said, though, that the singing is well disciplined, as I’ve come to expect from this choir’s recordings, and the diction is very good John Quinn, MusicWeb

"On Michael Hurd’s tombstone are the words “Composer and Author.” He was talented as both and as broadcaster, lecturer, and musical organizer. While perhaps most widely known for his “pop cantatas” he also produced many other works, especially in the choral field.

It was important for Hurd to be involved in his local community and many of his choral works were written for local events or groups or people known to him. One of the earliest works on this disc is the mass written for Hurd’s teacher Lennox Berkeley and
Berkeley’s wife Frieda. This is a moving though somewhat enigmatic work. The other two liturgical works here, Rejoice with Us and Praise Ye the Lord are good examples of inspired gebrauchsmusik. Of greater interest are Hurd’s secular works on religious themes, especially Genesis, a very expressive and almost somber work and the Five Spiritual Songs -several set to the same poems by George Herbert that Vaughan Williams used in his work of almost the same name. Both these pieces demonstrate Hurd’s talent for appropriate and inspired setting of texts, his endless vitality and his preference for widely spaced harmonies. The last giving an intimate and open-air feeling to even the most serious compositions.

The most substantial work on this disc is the group of Edward Thomas settings. Interestingly, several of these had already been set by Ivor Gurney, subject of perhaps the best-known of Hurd’s books. Almost all of Hurd’s settings could be described as “night music”, with texts on nocturnal subjects set in a slow, almost visionary style with subtle variations in texture and pacing. The cycle culminates in ‘The Trumpet” with a slow section that is the high-point of the disc. On the other end of the scale one should not neglect the cycle “A Parley of Owls”, a work of charm without sentimentality.

Jeremy Backhouse and the Vasari Singers bring the finesse and clarity of line to these performances that one would expect from their previous recordings and they are especially attuned to the skill with which Hurd sets his texts. They also demonstrate an excellent sense of pace and a true affinity for Hurd’s special harmonic sense. Highly recommended." William Kreindler, MusicWeb-International

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