Three things mark out its importance. Firstly, Gordon Pullin has included a wide variety of material – including two piano pieces – which explores the topic of railways from an unusual perspective. The composers represented range from Glinka (the only non-British composer) through to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is not normally associated with ‘serious’ music. This journey goes by way of ‘mainline’ composers such as Benjamin Britten, Ivor Gurney and Nicholas Maw and ‘branch-line’ names like as Mervyn Horder, John McLain and Carol Barratt. In-between there are the ‘station stops’ – such as Alec Rowley, John Jeffreys and Henry G. Ley. Secondly, most of the pieces recorded here are rare – they are virtually unattainable elsewhere. Even Vivian Ellis’s oft recorded Coronation Scot is given in its piano version: it is a piece I have played, but never heard, in this particular arrangement.
And thirdly, Pullin makes an interesting experiment in giving multiple settings of two of the more famous poems – ‘Adlestrop’ (Edward Thomas) and ‘From a Railway Carriage’ (Robert Louis Stevenson). Please, please do not expect me to declare a favourite from these multiple recordings. I believe that all of them (except the Barratt) are worthy additions to the repertoire of English Lieder. However, I do have a soft spot for the unpublished Gurney and the surprisingly good song by Francis Jackson who is more often associated with the organ loft. And there are more possibilities for a future release: I understand that Anthony Payne set the former poem and Arthur Butterworth the latter...
From a personal point of view, both these poems have been favourites of mine since childhood. Yet, I do not believe I have ever heard any settings of these poems before, so it is great to be introduced to a number of fine combinations of music and poetry by a various composers.
I mentioned above that there was a diversity of material. This is true both from the subject matter and from the musical perspective. John Jeffrey’s ‘Ambulance Train’ (W.W.Gibson Hill-Tracks) is a disturbing (but vital) irruption into what is largely a happy and light-hearted (if at times nostalgic) recital. It is good to see a couple of John Betjeman settings – ‘The Metropolitan Railway’ and ‘Diss’. Betjeman was a great enthusiast of railways and often wrote about them in his prose and poetry writings. Strangely, he has been largely ignored by song composers- with honourable exception of Mervyn Horder. The first of these two songs has a sort ‘Jeeves & Bertie Wooster’ ‘thirties feel to the tune.
A few of the numbers do leave me cold – certainly the gimmicky setting of ‘From a Railway Carriage’ by Carol Barratt: she calls for the singer to blow a wooden ‘engine whistle’ which seems largely unnecessary. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musically predictable setting of T.S. Elliot’s ‘Skimbleshanks’ (another favourite poem from my childhood) seems rather pedestrian and out of place in this collection. Alas, I am not sure that there are any other settings of this charming poem.
The other piano piece on this disc is the delightful Railroad Rhythm by the master of ‘novelty’ piano Billy Mayerl. Although the title suggests music from across the ‘pond’ this piece generates an atmospheric that is perhaps more Home Counties than Mid-West! It is always a pleasure to listen to his music.
Britten’s two offerings are impressive- the well known song from the Thomas Hardy Winter Words song-cycle and the period piece by Auden, ‘Calypso’. No recital of English song would be complete without at least one song from this composer.
Mervyn Horder is a name that crops up in the annals if English music, yet I have never heard any music by him. So it is good to hear his setting of a poem he wrote himself – ‘British Rail’ which is really a little bit of a wheeze with some rather witty words and a jolly tune.
I have not heard any music by John McLain before. However, the three songs presented here are attractive numbers which remind me of the music of Michael Head in its apparent simplicity, yet having a depth and emotional value that transcends the notes on the page. I particularly enjoyed the poignant setting of ‘The Demise of Harpenden Junction Box’ to words by Sue Woodward.
Gordon Pullin sings all these songs well: he has an attractive light-tenor voice that certainly owes something to Peter Pear’s musical delivery. His voice is better in the lower and middle range but he is equal to the task of interpreting any of these songs. He is well accompanied by a sympathetic pianist, John Gough.
The sleeve notes are by the redoubtable Philip L. Scowcroft, whose huge knowledge and understanding of British (Light) music is hugely appreciated by readers of MusicWeb International and those lucky enough to have been able to purchase his books, including those on railway subjects as well as on music.
Are there any downsides to this CD? Well, I would have been extremely grateful for a full listing of composer’s dates, the composition dates (where known) and details of track timings. I understand that some people may see these as being a little ‘anoraky’ but the reality is that the dates are extremely useful for situating a piece in its milieu and the timings may help a radio producer choose a track for their programme. I would also have liked the text of the songs printed, but I do understand that this would have involved copyright issues. And finally, a date of recording would have been useful.
On an extremely positive note, this is a great CD that introduces the listener to a wide variety of British song (Glinka apart) that is at once unusual and challenging. The standard of the singing by Gordon Pullin and piano playing by John Gough is excellent. And finally, there is an excellent painting of Adlestrop Station by Neville Morris used on the sleeve notes.
Francis Jackson (1917-) ‘From a Railway Carriage’ (R.L.Stevenson) [1:56]
Gordon Jacob (1895-1984) ‘Adlestrop’ (Edward Thomas) [2:58]
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) ‘Traveller's Song’ (N.F.NemirovichDanchenko) [2:59]
John Jeffreys (1927-) ‘Ambulance Train’ (W.W.Gibson) [2:23]
Alec Rowley (1892-1958) ‘From a Railway Carriage’ [0.58]
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) ‘Adlestrop’ [3:08]
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) ‘Midnight on the Great Western’ (Thomas Hardy) [4:46]
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) ‘Calypso’ (W.H.Auden) [2:05]
Vivian Ellis (1903-1996) Coronation Scot- piano solo [2:31]
Henry Ley (1887-1962) ‘From a Railway Carriage’ [0:58]
Peter Duffy (?) ‘Adlestrop’ [3:46]
Geoffrey Kimpton (1927- ) ‘The Railroad’ (William Barnes) [2:32]
Leslie East (?) ‘The Metropolitan Railway’ (John Betjeman) [3:27]
Carol Barratt (1954- ) ‘From a Railway Carriage’ [1:17]
John McLain (1933-) ‘Adlestrop’ [3:47]
Geoffrey Wright (1912- ) ‘Diss’ (John Betjeman) [3:22]
Andrew Lloyd Webber (1948- ) ‘Skimbleshanks’ (T.S.Eliot) [4:45]
Billy Mayerl (1902-1959) Railroad Rhythm-piano solo [3:31]
John McLain (1933-) The Old Railway Line (Anne Allinson) [3:08]
Flanders (1922-1975) and Swann (1923-1994) Slow Train [3:42]
John McLain (1933-) I came to Oxford (Gerald Gould) [2:40]
Mervyn Horder (1910-1997) British Rail (Mervyn Horder) [2:07]
John McLain (1933) The Demise of Harpenden Junction Box (Sue Woodward) [3:52]
Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-1947) Canon Gloy (Harry Graham) [0:41]
Nicholas Maw (1935-2009) This Train (anon) [2:52]
Gordon Pullin (tenor) with John Gough (piano)
Stewart Orr Sound Services SOSS CD369