CD Review: Songs of the Elder Sisters

Songs of the Elder Sisters CD Cover Image Stone Records

Liveryman Ron Corp’s latest CD’s of song, beautifully recorded and produced by Stone Records, is a further example of the sheer breadth, range and effectiveness of his compositional style and approach.

The Therigatha, from which these songs are drawn, are early Buddhist texts written some 2,500 years ago during Buddha’s lifetime by women who had renounced society, living in their own religious communities. It consists of 73 poems, 522 stanzas in all, in which the early nuns recount their struggles and accomplishments on their journeys towards Nirvana.

In an earlier conversation, Ron had commented to me that the challenge for a composer was to find something that complemented and extended the poems in setting them to music. With these texts, we clearly hear his skill in finding a range of voices that enables him to do this.

In setting Frances Booth’s elegant and fluent translations, he manages very successfully to bring the far Eastern tradition of the source texts, traditionally chanted, into a Western, readily accessible musical idiom. He does this without any sense of compromise, enabling the listener to have a real sense of their underlying poignancy and passion. Although the compositional world Ron inhabits is very much a lyrical English one, the range, sophistication and effectiveness of his settings reflects faithfully his personal response to the texts bringing a connectivity that does deepen our understanding and appreciation.

The combination of mezzo soprano and baritone complemented by alto flute, clarinet and viola gives a surprisingly varied palette of warm, rich and sometimes dark sounds that suit the more ruminative nature of many of these poems. He is wonderfully served by his singers and musicians in a beautifully crystalline recording with a clear sense of acoustic space and warmth without being over-reverberant. It was made in the church of Saint Alban the Martyr, Holborn, where Ron is the Assistant Priest.

The songs are grouped into five themed sections with short instrumental interludes setting the various moods and tone and creating musical space both to differentiate and prepare the listener. For example, the solo viola first interlude sets the context for the two songs of Grieving Mothers giving us a clear sense of the emotional depth and breadth of what is to come. The fluid, lyrical interweaving of the three instruments in the next interlude moves us on musically and emotionally preparing us for the rhythmic vitality of Punna’s Song.

Ron is able to capture the underlying nuances in the songs very sensitively in his range of settings. He has an acute ear for words – relishing in vowels, consonants, syllables – and a level of compositional technique that creates and blends textures such that the voice always comes through. He has a gift for writing music that speaks well, effectively reflecting his deep knowledge and understanding of vocal and instrumental technique.

Subha’s Song, the final and most substantial work in both scale and depth with its rich narrative for Subha and the Man, gives a dramatic opportunity, which Ron fully grasps, creating a scena that stands well on its own. In many ways this piece encapsulates all the strengths of Ron’s compositional style and the singers, Sarah Castle and Samuel Evans.

The grouping of the songs into the various sections enables the listener to sample the range and depth of the settings. This is an effective entry approach for this varied and satisfying sequence of songs, which I warmly recommend to our readers.

Court Assistant Christopher Lawrence