Monday, 7 May 2012

The Complete C.W. Orr Songbook-Volume 1

Charles Wilfred Orr (1893-1976)
Seven Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad: Along the field, When I watch the living meet, The Lent lily, Farewell to barn and stack and tree, Oh fair enough are sky and plain, Hughley Steeple, When smoke stood up from Ludlow (1927-1931)  Silent Noon (1921) Tryste Noel (1927) The Brewer’s Man (1927) Two Seventeenth Century Poems: The Earl of Bristol’s farewell, Whenas I wake (1927-28) Slumber Song (published 1937) Fain would I change that note (published 1937) When the lad for longing sighs (1921) The Carpenter’s Son (1921-22) When I was one-and-twenty (1924) Soldier from the wars returning (1928) When summer’s end is nighing (?) Two Songs from A Shropshire Lad: ’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town, Loveliest of trees, the cherry (1921-22)
Mark Stone (baritone) Simon Lepper (piano)
STONE RECORDS 5060192780123

I have had to wait a long time for this project to be realised. Certainly, I heard my first song by Charles Wilfred Orr some 40 years ago. It was a setting of A.E. Housman’s great poem, ‘When I was one-and-twenty.’ Over the years I have heard other songs included in recitals and featuring on records, tapes and CDs. With the publication of Jane Wilson’s excellent study of the composer, C.W. Orr – the unknown song-composer, the complete extent of the song-setting has become clear.  Conventional wisdom, up to that point, suggested that Orr had only chosen to set Housman’s poems. However, it soon became clear that although that poet did feature often in his song settings, there was a wide variety of other texts and poets. There are some 36 songs listed in the catalogue. Out of these there are some 22 settings of Housman. Other writers include Helen Waddell, Arthur Waley, D.G Rossetti, James Joyce and Robert Bridges.  Additionally, the catalogue listed three choral settings and two instrumental works – one the Cotswold Hill Tune for string orchestra and the Midsummer Dance for ‘cello and piano. More about that Dance and the choral pieces below.

It is not really necessary to give a biography of the composer in this review. However one or two brief points may be of help to someone coming to these songs for the first time.  Charles Wilfred Leslie Orr was born in Cheltenham in 1893. He studied the piano privately. Unfortunately, the Great War interrupted his plans for a formal musical education.  After the war he entered the Guildhall School of Music and studied composition.  The second point of importance is his meeting with Fred. Delius, who was impressed with Orr’s music and acted as a mentor to him.  He also met Peter Warlock who helped get his first songs published. Most of Orr’s setting were written before the Second World War, a few were composed in the ‘forties and ‘fifties, however he was musically silent between the Midsummer Dance of 1957 and his death some nineteen years later. Orr lived in Painswick, in Gloucestershire with his wife from 1929 until his death in 1976.

In later years the composer was somewhat bitter at the lack of recognition he had received. In 1974 he wrote that ‘…I have always been more or less ignored by the BBC…so it is nothing new…to be regarded as not worth performing, but all the same it is a bit disheartening to be cold-shouldered in one’s own country…’

C.W. Orr’s musical style not unnaturally owes much to Delius. However, as a young man he had studied and enjoyed the songs of Hugo Wolf and Johannes Brahms: these influences are never far away. Yet, as one critic put it, Orr was ‘no slavish imitator of any man’s work.’ Each poem that he chose to set created a mood in the composer’s mind that allowed him to create a perfect partnership between words and music. There is a huge difference in style between the lyrical beauty of Rossetti’ ‘Silent Noon’ and the dramatic almost violent sound of Housman’s ‘The Carpenter’s Song’. 

The present CD, which is Volume 1 of a projected two-disc set, has 21 song tracks. So I wonder what the second volume is going to be filled up with. It may be that there are a number of other songs that have been discovered since Jane Wilson’s book as published.

The recital opens with what is probably Orr’s best known song-cycle Seven Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad.  These songs were composed between 1927 and 1931. ‘Along the Field’ is impressionistic in its effect. ‘When I watch the living meet’, is a meditation of someone looking forward to the calm of death. It is a brooding song. ‘The Lent Lily’ has a romantic ‘exuberant’ piano part. It is my favourite song of this group. The disturbing subject matter of fratricide is reflected in the powerful musical setting of ‘Farewell to barn and stack.’ The gentler, but equally troubling song ‘Oh fair enough are sky and plain’ is actually quite positive, bearing in mind the subject matter is suicide. ‘Hughley Steeple’, in spite of the fact the church had a tower and not a steeple, is a reflective number that matches the thoughts of the Shropshire Lad in the graveyard.  The final song of this cycle is the bouncy ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’: there is almost a folk-song feel to this song. All these poems have been set many times by English composers; however, Orr’s ‘takes’ are effective. I believe that these are some of the finest settings in the repertoire.

‘Tryst Noel’ is a thoughtful number that is really a little parody on a medieval carol. This is one of the darker songs in the present collection. The Two Seventeenth Century Poems are particularly memorable: these love songs are expressive and a little gloomy in their sentiment.  The Earl of Bristol’s Farewell is sad and reflective, with some interesting chromatic harmonies. ‘Wheneas I wake is a short song that again considers the emotion of absence. It builds to an impressive climax before a short piano postlude ends the song.

Orr’s first Housman setting was ‘When the lad for longing sighs.’ It was one of six songs, which the composer sent to Peter Warlock for his approval. This is a well-written song that fuses the poet’s words with the music. It is not surprising that Warlock was impressed with it.
‘When I was one and twenty’ is one of Housman’s less disturbing poems. In fact it is really quite amusing. This setting balances folksong in the first and art song in the second verse. This is one of the most effective settings of this poem in the repertoire.  

The CD concludes with Two Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad.’ These were composed in 1921/22 when the composer was on holiday in the south of France. However, images and recollections of the ‘Land of Lost Content’ were never far from his mind. These songs epitomise that connection between landscape and music that has proved so elusive to many composers but was achievable by Orr. The first song is ‘Tis time, I think by Wenlock Town’ which is a celebration of the arrival of spring. Orr makes use of a bell-like motif throughout the song. My favourite Housman lines are delightfully set – ‘Spring will not wait the loiterer’s time/Who keeps so long away’. Delius is never far away from this song with its delicious shifting harmonies.  
Many composers have set ‘Loveliest of Trees’, including Muriel Herbert, Graham Peel and Janet Hamilton. However, the  musical touchstone must be George Butterworth’s masterpiece. It is not appropriate to suggest that Orr’s setting is better or worse: it is another excellent addition to the repertoire. This song is contemplative, ideally fitting words to music and communicating the poet’s sense of the transience of life.

I am not sure what the point is of providing Orr’s Midsummer Dance for cello and piano with words from Housman’s Last Poems. I do not care if the result of ‘When summer’s end is nighing’ is effective or not: it is just that it seems odd. I would much rather they had recorded the original piece, even though it would if been outside the remit of this CD.  The Dance was written in 1957 and was dedicated to the cellist Penelope Lynex, the daughter of the composer’s friend Richard Lynex.  All things said, I think this setting is awful: it just does not work. I believe that it does no justice to Orr’s genius.

Neither am I convinced by the inclusion of the three songs that are usually classified as choral music: ‘The Brewer’s Man’, ‘Slumber Song’ and ‘Fain would I change that note’.  It could well be that Orr produced versions for baritone and piano, however they are not included in the catalogue of his music provided in Jane Wilson’s biography of the composer.  ‘The Brewer’s Man’ was a big gutsy song written for the baritone John Goss. However the original version included a two-part choir.  It is a setting of a poem by the Plymouth born poet Leonard Alfred George Strong.  The second choral piece is ‘Slumber Song’ to a text by Noel Lindsay.  This time the work was written for choir and piano.  It is a lovely reflective tune, that complements the dreamy words and imagery of moon, millwheel and dreams of yesteryear. Finally, ‘Fain would I change the note’, was originally conceived for three-part choir and piano. This a powerful four-square tune that fits surpisingly well with the thought that ‘Love is the perfect sum/ Of all delight.’

I enjoyed this CD –with the caveats noted above. It was good to hear a number of songs by C.W. Orr that I have never heard before. Mark Stone, baritone and Simon Lepper, pianist perform all these songs with feeling and enthusiasm. They have a deep sympathy for the composer’s style and the texts, which he has set.  
The liner notes are excellent and include the first part of an essay about the composer which explains ‘the creation of a song-writer.’ It is essential reading for all listeners to this CD, and I suggest that it is read before putting the CD into the player. Each song has a short programme note and includes the text.
This CD will appeal to all lovers of English Song. It is an important release that will encourage more performances and further study of these beautiful songs. 
 With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published

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