Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Sappho, Shropshire and Super-Tramp: A Collection of Modern English Art-Song

The CD liner notes begins with a sobering reflection on British music-making. Richard Carder notes that ‘[The English Poetry and Song Society] competitions for composers started in 1992, celebrating the bi-centenary of the birth of Shelley, and continued every year after that with anniversaries of various poets, as a way of increasing interest in English Art-Song, which has always been a poor relation compared with German Lieder, French Mélodies, and Italian Arias; – as Hubert Parry noted in his History of Music, ‘The English prefer foreign music!’
I have always been in the minority in this matter. Although I enjoy Schubert, Wolf, Duparc et. al. my preference has always been for English art-song. The first major work in this genre that I heard was John Shirley Quirk’s performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ magical Songs of Travel (Robert Louis Stevenson). It has been a genre that has captivated and fascinated me ever since.
This new release from Divine Art, sponsored by The English Poetry and Song Society contains music by eight Society composers, ‘who have all featured as prize-winners in past competitions, including the three complete cycles [alluded to in] the album title, and a song by each of the four past chairmen of the society.’ It is a potpourri of fascinating music.
Of the 52 songs on this 2-CD set, I will note several highlights-for me.  

The main event are the three song cycles by Ivor Gurney, William Carnell and Dennis Wickens. These are settings of poetry by Sappho, A.E. Housman and W.H. Davies respectively.
Clearly Ivor Gurney is the best-kent composer on this album, with many CDs devoted to his vocal music. Gurney’s Seven Sappho Songs were selected from poet William Bliss Carman’s (1861–1929) volume Sappho: One Hundred Lyrics. This book was an adaptation of several fragments by the Aeolic Greek lyric poet. Three songs were originally published by Oxford University Press, with the remaining four being edited by Richard Carder as part of a project to realise Gurney’s unpublished songs.  I understand that this is the first recording of Gurney’s complete ‘Sappho’ cycle. These are beautiful songs that are full of passion and emotion: they perfectly reflect the blue skies and seas of the Isle of Lesbos.
It is hardly surprising that Housman is represented on this disc. For many years, he was one of the foremost poets set by English composers. William Carnell has selected six songs from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, including such favourites as ‘In Summertime on Bredon Hill’, ‘Along the Field’ and ‘O see how thick the gold cup flowers’. They are all well-crafted songs and that are in the trajectory of earlier settings. A Country Lover is splendidly sung by Johnny Herford. The work was first performed in 2007.

When I was a teenager, I read W.H. Davies Autobiography of a Super Tramp. This fascinating ‘romp’ around Great Britain, the United States and Canada appealed to my sense of adventure and history. It was not until many years later that I discovered that Davies had also written poetry. Dennis Wickens has set several of these verses. Alas, the liner notes give no information about this work, which is a pity. For me, it is the most important and vibrant work on this CD.

The second CD presents several standalone songs by a variety of composers as detailed in the batting-order above. These set an eclectic variety of poets, including relative rarities in the English art-song tradition such as Carol Ann Duffy, Rabindranath Tagore, Hart Crane and Edith Sitwell. More common sources for songs include Walter de la Mare, Christina Rossetti, A.E. Housman and Thomas Hardy.
I enjoyed most of these songs, however a few especially captured my imagination. I always admire a composer who sets a text that has become a standard in another composer’s oeuvre. Brian Daubney’s ‘Bredon Hill’ is a satisfying take on a song that has been defined by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Equally enjoyable is Daubney’s version of Humbert Wolfe’s poem ‘The Dream City’. This has been previously set by Gustav Holst. It is one of my favourite poems, and Daubney rises to the challenge.
Another interesting and imaginative song is Graham Garton’s ‘The Shade-Catchers’, with text written by Charlotte Mew.
Robert Hugil’s settings of Rabindranath Tagore are particularly lovely with an impressive sound-world that compliments the ‘profoundly sensitive, fresh and beautiful verse’ from this largely-forgotten poet.
One of the most delightful songs on this second CD is Janet Oates settings of Walter de la Mare’s ‘The Cupboard’, complete with ‘lollipops’ and ‘Banbury Cakes’ and hand-claps. It is a little masterpiece.
My favourite song here is Simon Willink’s heart-achingly beautiful realisation of his own poem ‘Sea and Sky’.
There are plenty more interesting numbers, each of which deserves a detailed analysis.

The liner notes have been assembled by Richard Carder, David Crocker and several of the composers. They vary in information, with Carder’s comments on Ivor Gurney being essay-length and notes on several of the composers and their contribution being little more than a couple of short paragraphs. I was not sure why Alfred Warren (1926-2014) is mentioned in these biographical notes, as I could not find any music by him: I think that he is, in fact, a poet who wrote the text for ‘My Whole World’, set my David Crocker. But I could be wrong.
The texts of all the songs are provided which is helpful, although I would have liked the source of each text to have been included in the track-listings. Dates of composition were not included in the track-listings and are not always given in the liner notes.  For biographical details of the performers, the listener is invited to visit the Divine Art Website.

The performance of these songs is typically very good. Both Sarah Leonard and Johnny Herford bring considerable skill, magic and understanding to this music. The words are always clearly enunciated and are immediately understandable.  The piano part is well-executed by Nigel Foster.

This is an excellent exploration of (mainly) contemporary English art-song, written in largely, but not exclusively traditional style, and goes a long way to prove that the genre is alive and well in the early 21st century. 

Track Listing:
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) Seven Sappho Songs [14:38]
William CARNELL (b.1938) A Country Lover [18:42]
Michael WATTS (b.1937) Gypsy Girl [20:07]
Dennis WICKENS (b.1926) This Life [23:59]
Simon WILLINK (1929-2015) Sea and Sky [4:13]
David CROCKER (b.1943) A Great Time [1:59], My Whole World [1:46]
Sulyen CARADON (b.1942) Silver [2:32]
Brian DAUBNEY (b.1929) Bredon Hill [3:56], Boot and Saddle [1:34], Because I could not stop for death [2:35], The Dream City [4:32], Waiting Both [2:08]
Graham GARTON (b.1929) Leisure [5:05], The Eagle [2:32], The Song of the Secret [2:45], The Shade Catchers [1:23]
Frank HARVEY (b.1939) Dawn [3:58], The Convergence of the Twain [4:43], I so liked spring [1:10], Remember [5:02]
Robert HUGILL (b.1955) Voyages III [4:24], Gitanjali XIII [3:48], Gitanjali II [4:06], The Pillar [3:01]
Janet OATES (b.1970) Bee: Dance [3:53], Money [2:13], The King of China’s Daughter [3:18], The Cupboard [2:18]
Sarah Leonard (soprano), Johnny Herford (baritone) Nigel Foster (piano)
DIVINE ART dda21230
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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