Review

Note: The following review by Paul Hale appeared in the May 2000 issue of Organists' Review and was furnished by Stephen Beet.

Boy choristers from a bygone age

The Better Land

Great Boy Sopranos recorded 1914-1944

the voices of Denis Wright, Leslie Day, Denis Barthel, Robert Harris, Frederick Firth, Morris Stevens, Gordon Carter, Walter Lawrence, Thomas Tweedle, Trevor Scholefield, John Bonner, Iwad Davies, Leslie Ray

Twenty-two tracks, with various backing, choirs, orchestras, pianists & organists, including the Temple Church Choir, Robinson Cleaver, George Thalben-Ball, the choir of Manchester Cathedral, Gerald Moore

Recorded 1914-1942, mostly from 1928 onwards, digitally remastered and restored using the Cedar process (mono) in 1999; TT 73’44", AMPHION PHI CD 158

What a remarkable enterprise this has been – and with a second volume hard on its heels. Due to the enthusiasm of Stephen Beet for the beauty of the true Boy Soprano, together with the commitment of the AMPHION team, we can listen to a host of astonishingly talented and well-trained young men at the height of their careers – and only a very few of them in church choirs. Some of them left school at 14 to earn a living – singing Treble!

Lest anyone imagine that there was only one talented boy soprano – Ernest Lough – listen to this collection and be amazed. From about 150 78rpm discs these 22 tracks were eventually chosen to demonstrate the sheer range of repertoire not only sung but recorded by pre-war boy sopranos. The voices are all excellently trained, with the clearest of diction, extended breath support, an attractive degree of vibrato, and above all, a glowingly warm and well-projected head-tone. No pushed-up chest voice here, but the full head resonance gloriously developed and given added character through beautifully enunciated clear vowels. The sheer maturity of the boys’ voices and their musical interpretations – of everything from music hall songs, love songs, to Bach & Handel arias, the Holy City, Nymphs & Shepherds, Christopher Robin, O for the wings, Who is Sylvia and so on – is breathtaking, and is a sure sign that they carried on singing well into their teens, no doubt gaining extra resonance as they grew. It was, after all, as recently as the late 1960s that the Head Chorister of the Temple Church Choir asked to leave so that he could sit his A-levels!

That this delightfully varied and balanced programme can of course be enjoyed for its own sake – as a musical treat – is the real test for any historical reissue. I cannot remember experiencing such delight and pleasure from an historical release before. It also gives me cause to reflect upon what we are doing with the training of our boys’ voices today (despite apparently knowing all about technique and employing singing teachers in many cathedrals) if we can but so rarely produce such rounded musicians as these, with their sumptuous beauty of tone.

If you are remotely interested in singing, do listen to this remarkable collection – and lookout for volume 2, to be launched at about the time this issue of OR appears.

Paul Hale
Organists' Review - May 2000

Copyright © 2000 Organists' Review
Used with permission of the author and editor of
Organists' Review.

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