Elisabetta Paglia (mezzo-soprano) Elena Lunghi (horn) Christopher Howell (piano)
SHEVA CD SH076
Tracklisting at the end of the post
This is a concept album. Before the reader thinks that I have confused The Beatles Sergeant Pepper or Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition with something a little more classical, humour me for a moment. The Wikipedia definition of ‘concept album’ is “a studio recording where all musical or lyrical ideas contribute to a single overall theme or unified story.” This is naturally in contradistinction to most records which consist in a largely unrelated set of songs performed by the artists. Usually a ‘concept album’ would emphases an ‘extra-musical’ theme rather than just being a collection of ‘love’ songs. Viewed in this light, Christopher Howell’s exploration of ‘British Musical Renaissance’ settings of Christina Rossetti’s poetry fits the bill perfectly. This has been done before in classical recording history. There are CDs that major on songs by Shakespeare, Housman and Hardy. But the present release is the only one (to my knowledge) that has addressed Rossetti’s work in this manner.
There is a major difference to Sergeant Pepper. That particular masterpiece encourages the listener to take the entire disc at one sitting. It is a developing theme or ‘story’ that needs some attention and typically demands to be explored from the first track to the last in the order presented. The present disc can be listened to in like manner, however I would advise against it.
Christopher Howell in his liner notes has not chosen to give a mini-biography of Christina Rossetti, but to contribute a miniature essay of criticism. Whilst this is most interesting, I feel a few notes about her life are pertinent here.
Christina Rossetti is best known for the Christmas hymn ‘In the Bleak Mid-Winter’ and for ‘Goblin Market’ and is currently regarded as one of the most vital women poets of the nineteenth century. She was born in London on 5 December 1830. Her personality was dominated by a combination of a strong Christian faith, based on High Church Anglicanism and a passion for the arts. Her brother, Dante was the renowned Pre-Raphaelite painter. At eighteen years of age she was engaged to James Collinson (1825-1881) who was a minor artist in the ‘brotherhood’ however it was broken off after he reverted to Roman Catholicism. In later years she was in love with the English linguist Charles Cayley(1823–1883) yet she never married him because she felt that his religious convictions were weak. There are unconfirmed rumours that she also loved the painter William Scott Bell (1811-1890) and that some of her poems have this relationship as a sub text.
Her artistic circle included James McNeill Whistler, Algernon Swinburne and Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). Her writing declined in quantity towards the end of her life, especially after her brother Dante’s mental breakdown in 1872 which was partially caused by negative reaction to his book of poems.
Christina Rossetti’s major poetry works include, Goblin Market and Other Poems published in 1862, Sing-Song: a Nursery Rhyme Book (1872) and Prince's Progress and Other Poems (1866). She also wrote a novel Maude: A Story for Girls and a variety of Christian books for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Christina Rossetti died of cancer on 29 December 1894.
Her life and works have been subject to a variety of critical disciplines, with ‘Freudian’ critics discovering religious and sexual repression. ‘Feminist’ criticism has explored her corpus of works as an example of ‘constrained female genius.’ Attention has also been placed on examining her skilful use of words, rhyme and prosody. She is becoming recognised as being a good (not great) poet simply subject like all of us to the mores of her age and the influence of her peers.
Howell’s summing up of her poetic style is helpful: he writes that she ‘was the perfect lyricist. Rossetti’s brief poems each explore a single mood…When she is sad, she is desperately so, when she rejoices she does so wholeheartedly.’ In fact her methodology of poetry is ideal for the composer – they can concentrate on giving ‘expression to a single poetic idea. This is the essence of the lyric piece of music.’
I do not want to describe each song; I do want to make four observations (all positive) about this CD. Firstly the majority of these songs were composed by five pillars of the English Musical Renaissance. I imagine that little special pleading is required to support the reputations of Charles Villiers Stanford and Charles Hubert Hastings Parry. Alexander Mackenzie has slowly (too slowly, alas) gained a foothold in the world of recorded music.
Fewer music enthusiasts will know the music of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and even less that of Frederic Hymen Cowen. Howell suggests that Cowen is the most lightweight of this group of composers. Unfortunately, listeners have little to be able to approach him. The Symphony No.6 (Idyllic), the once ubiquitous The Butterfly Ball and maybe a few piano pieces spring to mind. These present songs reveal a composer who was sensitive to text setting and who had a deeper reflective nature than the ‘lepidopterarian potboiler’ noted above may suggest. Coleridge-Taylor’s ‘Lament’ is heart-breakingly beautiful – it is possibly the most moving song on this CD.
Secondly, included in this recital are a number of songs from an anthology known as Kookoorookoo. This was edited by the composer Thomas F. Dunhill and comprised songs by twelve English composers. Elisabetta Paglia presents three each from Parry and Stanford. Other composers represented in the collection included Walford Davies, W.G. Alcock, Frederick Bridge, Walter Parratt, Percy Buck and Dunhill himself. Based on the attractive nature of the six songs given here, I hope that the entire cycle will be recorded soon.
Thirdly, it is good to have a handful of songs composed by a later generation (although born around the same time as Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, their careers lasted considerably longer). Martin Shaw gave the world in excess of a hundred songs, chamber music and even a ‘piano concerto,’ yet precious few are recalled today. Graham Peel is remembered for his Housman settings and little else, yet he set a wide variety of poets including Robert Louis Stevenson, Hillaire Belloc and William Ernest Henley. Although Cyril Scott is well represented in the CD catalogues, this is mainly for orchestral, chamber and piano solo music. Scott’s song settings are striking and definitively make a major contribution to the genre. His setting of ‘Lullaby’ is worth the price of this disc alone.
Finally, I would not have imagined there was room for another version of ‘In Bleak Mid-Winter’. Everyone knows the Gustav Holst and Harold Darke settings. Bruce Montgomery (‘Carry On’ film fame) and Liza Lehmann have also made settings of these words. Howell’s is very much written as a pastiche of the general run of songs in this present selection. It emphases the tenderness of the words rather than their frostiness. It is truly beautiful.
The presentation of this CD is outstanding. The liner notes, written by Christopher Howell are excellent. They introduce the poetry of Christina Rossetti in a concise but informative manner. He gives a brief contextual description of each song or group of songs. Included are the texts of all the poems, in English and with an Italian translation.
I enjoyed Elisabetta Paglia’s rendition of these songs. Her rich voice is well-suited to these lyrics. She has an impressive CV, having sung a wide range of genres including opera, (Figaro & Cosi fan tutte) choral works including Vivaldi’s Gloria and Stabat Mater with many appearances in vocal and instrumental groups. Elisabetta Paglia is particularly committed to romantic Italian song.
Christopher Howell’s playing is first-rate throughout. Recent years have seen him record albums of piano music by Cyril Scott and Charles Villiers Stanford. There is a remarkable double CD of music of British piano music inspired by Italy – An Englishman in Italy. In addition to his playing, he brings deep scholarly knowledge to the devising and realisation of this programme. Finally, I must not forget the atmospheric contribution by horn player Elena Lunghi to Howell’s ‘In the bleak mid-winter.’
This is a fascinating CD presenting a splendid selection of English Song (we must get away from calling it English Lieder). It seems to me that virtually all these songs are near perfect settings of ideally crafted lyrics by Christina Rossetti. All deserve to be in the repertoire of singers who ‘do’ British song.
It is disingenuous to wish for more that has been given, but I do hope that Christopher Howell will be persuaded to produce a few more ‘concept albums’ in the near future. What about settings of Edward Thomas, W.H. Davies or Robert Graves?
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
My hear is like a singing bird (1918) Three Songs for ‘Kookoorookoo’ (1916)
Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
Six Sorrow Songs Op.57 (1904)
Alexander Campbell MACKENZIE (1847-1935)
Three Songs Op.17 (1878)
Frederic Hymen COWEN (1852-1935)
For a Dream’s Sake, Bird Raptures (Songs Vol.V) Somewhere, A Birthday (Songs Vol.VIII) (1893)
Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
Three Songs for ‘Kookoorookoo’ (1916)
A Lament (1910)
Christopher HOWELL (b.1953)
In the bleak mid-winter (2000)
Graham PEEL (1877-1937)
Ferry me across the water (1924)
Martin SHAW (1875-1958)
Over the sea (1917) Easter Carol (1917)
Cyril SCOTT (1879-1970)
Looking Back (1917) Lullaby (1908) A Birthday (1913)