Wednesday, 12 December 2012

The Complete C.W. Orr Songbook- Volume 2

Charles Wilfred Orr (1893-1976)
Five Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’: With rue my heart is laden, This time of year, Oh, when I was in love with you, Is my team ploughing?, On your midnight pallet lying (1924-6) Plucking the rushes (1921) Four Songs: Bahnhofstrasse; Requiem, The time of roses, Since thou, O fondest and truest, (1932-57) Hymn before sleep (1953) While summer on is sleeping (1953) The lads in their hundreds (1936) The Isle of Portland (1938) '1887' (?) In valleys green and still (1952) Three Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’: Into my heart an air that kills, Westward on the high-hilled plains, Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers (1935-29)
Mark Stone (baritone) Simon Lepper (piano)
Stone Records 5060192780192

It does not seem long ago since I reviewed Volume 1 of this most desirable CD production. In fact, it was only March of this year.  I am delighted that the second volume has followed so rapidly: often these projects get a wee bit bogged down in cash-flow matters and time scales.  However, the present CD concludes what is an exceptionally valuable and important programme of English song. Let us be honest: if C.W. Orr had been called ‘Henri Duparc’ there would probably have been over a hundred discs devoted to his music. As it is, there are only odd songs in remote corners of song recital CDs. The ‘Complete Songs of C.W. Orr’ will probably be the one and only ‘complete’ survey of Orr’s vocal music in my lifetime. Yet these songs are not only important, they are (often) beautiful examples of the genre.

Twelve out of nineteen songs are settings of texts by Alfred Edward Housman. The disc opens with the important Five Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad.’ These include ‘With rue my heart is laden’, ‘This time of year’, ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’, ‘Is my team ploughing’ and ‘On your midnight pallet lying’. These were composed between 1924-26 and were published a couple of years later.  However, they were not issued as a collection until 1959. It is fair to say they are not a ‘song-cycle’ but a set of songs that benefit being sung together and in the order presented.
Perhaps the finest song in this group is ‘Is my team ploughing?’ It is hard to forget the R.V.W. and Butterworth settings of this text; however, Orr does not try to parody these. There is always a danger that this poem can sound a little banal – especially with the line ‘The goal stands up, the keeper/Stands up to keep the goal’ eschewed by Vaughan Williams. Orr has managed to create a sound world that explores the depth of the poem rather than the detail.
The other song that stood out for me was ‘On your midnight pallet lying’ which reflects the thoughts of a young man about to leave his lover and join his comrades setting out for war. Its mood sums up the depressing thoughts of the soldier.

Arthur Waley was a well-known ‘Orientalist’ who taught himself Japanese and Chinese. He published many books including a number of volumes of poetry in translation.  ‘Plucking the Rushes’ was first published in the 1918 collection of 170 Chinese Poems.  The song is remarkable for its attractive melody and unexpected chromatic twists. The setting is Orr’s earliest surviving song. 

For his ‘Four Songs’ (1959) Orr turned his attention to a wide variety of poets. The first is ‘Banhofstrasse’ by James Joyce (1882-1941).  This was the composer’s contribution to the ‘Joyce Book’ which were settings by various hands of 13 poems from the poet’s volume Pomes Pennyeach. Joyce suffered from his first attack of glaucoma on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse. The poem is a reaction to a realisation that ‘youth was behind him, but that he had yet to obtain the sagacity of old age.’ This, to my mind this is one of the best of Orr’s songs: it is an ideal musical evocation of the poem’s sentiment.

Helen Waddell (1889-1965) is justly famous for her translation of ‘Medieval Latin Lyrics’ published in 1929 and still in print. The liner notes point out that the words ‘Take, him, earth for cherishing’ are best-known in Herbert Howells’ choral setting in memory of John F. Kennedy. However, Orr’s 1954 song is equally moving and once again reflects on the the composer’s sense of his own mortality. This is a powerful song that is both introverted and lugubrious. The original Latin text was written by the Christian poet Prudentius.
Thomas Hood (1799-1845) provides the words for ‘The time of rose.’ It is one of the more optimistic settings on this CD, although the words can be interpreted as being more depressing than the music would suggest.
Robert Bridges (1844-1930) is a poet who is largely ignored today, in spite of the fact he was Poet Laureate.  ‘Since thou, O fondest and truest’ was Orr’s final song. I must admit that it is hard work to listen to: I would love to be able to appreciate and enjoy this work being the composer’s last ‘word’ on song-composition; however, I find it too miserable and dirge-like.

Two other settings from Helen Waddell translations are included on this CD. The first is the withdrawn ‘Hymn before Sleep’, also translated from Prudentius. ‘While summer on is sleeping' is taken from the Benediktbeuern Manuscript is the easiest on the mind in this present collection. The text is taken from the same source as Carl Orff’s well-known Carmina burana.  It is a simple, if passionate, love song that does not end in tragedy or too much despair. 

It is difficult to get George Butterworth’s setting of ‘The lads in their hundreds’ out of one’s head when reading Housman’s text. It is a problem that Orr faced when he wrote this song some twenty-five years later.  The liner notes point out that Butterworth’s is a strophic setting whereas Orr has applied melodic development. I prefer the earlier number.

‘The Isle of Portland’ is a ‘sea-scape’ for singer and piano. The accompanist plays a rocking barcarolle that suggests the ‘star-filled seas are smooth tonight.’ However, the song does become more animated as the singer reflects on the fact that ‘Far from his folk a dead lad lies.’ It has to be recalled that prisoners were sent to Portland to quarry stone as penal labour. It was a dangerous occupation.

I am baffled by the inclusion of a song called ‘1897’. Ok, it is a confection. C.W. Orr’s only offering for the orchestra is the short but near-perfect Cotswold Hill Tune.  This was originally composed for string orchestra in 1937.  In this present CD it has been ‘arranged’ as a song compassing the words of A.E. Housman’s poem From ‘Clee to heaven the beacon burns’.  It is a great poem – there is no doubt about that. The poet contrasts the celebrations for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887, with thoughts about the fallen in a variety of ‘colonial wars.’    There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this ‘song’ it just appears to my mind to have been forced into the mould of the the little tone poem.  I guess that it only appears as a makeweight to bring the CD duration up to nearly the hour mark. It should be promptly forgotten.

‘In valleys green and still’ was the last of C.W. Orr’s Housman settings.  In many ways, I feel that it is one of his best. Like much of the poet’s output, this poem meditates on the theme of soldiers going to war.  It is an involved number that sounds just a little bit awkward for the voice. The piano part is quite minimalist, creating an unfocused mood.

The final three tracks on this CD are settings of Housman’s poems. These ‘Three Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’’ were published as a group in 1940. However, they were composed over a period of some five years. The first, ‘Into my heart and air that kills’ was composed in 1935. It makes an interesting song-form being a set of variations on the melodic phrase from the first line. It is a deeply moving setting that reflects the mood of anyone ‘away from the place they love.’
The liner notes explain that Orr’s setting of ‘Westward on the high-hilled plains’ reflects the composer’s yearning for his ‘old life’. The poem itself is construed as an elderly man looking at someone much younger and reflecting on the dichotomy between ‘plus ca change’ and the continuity of existence between generations (vide ‘On Wenlock Edge’) It is not a setting that immediately appeals, but repeated hearing reveals the song’s character and ultimate strength. The piano part is powerful and essential to the song’s success.  The final song in this group ‘Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers’ was composed in 1939. It is another example of Housman meditating of the transience of time and the need to ‘seize the moment.’ 

With the exception of ‘1887’ (noted above), I relished this CD. As I noted in my review of Volume I it is great to hear a number songs by Orr that have eluded me for many years.  The two soloists give a sterling performance of all (most) of these numbers that is both sympathetic and enthusiastic. It is obvious to any listener that Mark Stone and Simon Lepper both have a deep understanding of the words and music of these songs.
As with the previous volume, the liner notes are helpful and are required reading before approaching the music.  The format of each song having its own little mini-programme note has been maintained. The text of the song is included. Part II of the essay Charles Wilfred Orr: The Unsung Hero of English Song is presented as a preface to the notes.

I guess that I would have enjoyed a little bit of variety in these songs – a mezzo-soprano perhaps. However, this is an album to sample – not to through-listen to. Much of the music is melancholic and could become a touch depressing if listened to end-to-end. It is fair to suggest that these songs need to be approached no more than three or four at a time.
However, there is much here to listen to, to think about and ultimately to enjoy. 
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.

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