Wednesday, 7 November 2018

With Harmony of Soul and Song: Songs of Hubert Parry

Unless I am mistaken, the first recording entirely devoted to the songs of Charles Hubert Hastings Parry was a selection from the 12 books of English Lyrics issued on the Decca label, recorded in 1977. It featured Robert Tear and Philip Ledger. This LP was released on the Argo label (ZK44).  

Twenty years later, Hyperion issued another splendid selection of Parry’s songs (CDA67044). The performers were Stephen Varcoe, baritone and Clifford Benson, piano. I recall buying the album as soon as it came out and was delighted by every number I heard. I guess that I was disappointed that the words ‘Volume 1’ did not appear on the back cover.

In 2013 Delphinan issued a wonderful disc of Parry’s songs entitled ‘From a City Window.’ (DCD34117). The artists included Ailish Tynan, soprano, Susan Bickley, mezzo-soprano, William Dazeley, baritone and Iain Burnside (piano). This had the added value of being recorded in the music room of Parry’s childhood home at Highnam Court in Gloucestershire. It received excellent reviews, including one on MusicWeb International by John Quinn.  At the end of his review, John wondered ‘when there’ll be another album of Parry’s songs…’
In fact, we did not have to wait long. In 2016 SOMM issued the first volume of the ‘Twelve Sets of English Lyrics.’ (SOMMCD257). Once again this was well-received. Two years later ‘Volume 2’ (SOMMCD270) of this cycle appeared in the record shops. I understand that there is a final CD in the offing. For the first time, Parry enthusiasts (and I am one) will be able to hear the entire run of his English Lyrics. Add to this, that the vocal scores for 11 of the 12 volumes of English Lyrics are available online for download, it will give enthusiast all the material they will need to evaluate Parry’s remarkable collection of songs.

Which brings me to the present CD from EM Records. This appears to be a standalone recital, with no suggestion of any subsequent releases of Parry’s songs. The batting order is largely in volume order of the published 12 volumes of the English Lyrics. I have not collated the songs selected to the above-mentioned CD and LP releases, but I understand that most of the numbers on this disc have been recorded before.

Parry’s enjoyment and appreciation of literature was eclectic. From Shakespeare to Sir Walter Scott and from Richard Lovelace to personal acquaintances of the composer such as Julian Sturgis, the list of poets and authors is wide-ranging in its artistic concerns. Parry does have a knack of choosing an excellent poem or verse, and then using his undoubted craftsmanship to create an enjoyable, satisfying and well-constructed song.

I do not intend to comment on every song, as this would make my review unwieldy. Four Songs particularly appealed to me.  One of the loveliest settings on this CD is ‘A Welsh Lullaby’, to a poem by Edmund O. Jones, translated by John Ceiriog Hughes (1832-1887). This peaceful song evokes the security of the cradle, without falling into sheer sentimentality. Hughes, a collector of Welsh folk-songs, was often referred to as the ‘Welsh Robert Burns’. Another Welsh poem made into a splendid number was ‘When Comes my Gwen’ with a text by Richard Davies (1833-77). This rhapsodic song gradually lessens in intensity to present the listener with a musical image that proves ‘Her loving eyes/Reveal the skies/And point the way to heaven.’  ‘On a time, the amorous Silvy’ is an anonymous little ‘pastoral’ verse which is turned into a coquettish song that tells of ‘Sylvia’s’ flirtation with her shepherd lover. Finally, ‘Ye Little Birds’ attributed to Thomas Heywood (c.1570-1641) reminds me of Arthur Sullivan: it is none the worse for that. Clearly other listeners will have their favourites.

The rear cover of the CD explains that the ‘Three Odes of Anacreon’ (1869-1878) are premiere recordings.  The first of these ‘odes’ ‘Away, away, you men of rules’ was written in 1868, when Parry was at Oxford University. It begins as rumbustious song, with a more reflective middle-section. The song ends by reminding the listener that ‘they drink but little wine below’ - in Hades, presumably. The second song, nods to ‘Bacchus and his merry crew.’ Once again this is a drinking song. The final number that Parry added before publication in 1880 was the more ‘sobering’ ‘Golden Hues of Life are Fled.’  The translations from Anacreon’s (582BC-485 BC) Greek were made by Irish poet and songwriter Thomas Moore (1779-1852).

Finally, it was good to hear another verison of ‘Dream Pedlary’. I guess virtually everyone knows and loves John Ireland’s setting, nevertheless, Parry has created a much more restrained song that perfectly reflects the mood of ‘A cottage lone and still…’

The liner notes present a brief but sufficient biography of Parry, written by Fabian Huss. This is followed by Paula Fan’s essay-length discussion of the repertoire on this CD. The text of all the songs is included. The booklet concludes with the usual notes about the performers.  I think that it would have been helpful to have given the poet’s name and the volume of English Lyrics the song is printed in the track-listing. I do know that it is ‘easy’ to gather this information from the above-mentioned essay and the song texts. I have included this detail in the track-listing below.

Baritone Jeremy Huw Williams brings an obvious enthusiasm to these songs. His diction is always crystal clear. I am not sure that I always enjoy Williams’ ‘falsetto’ in some of these songs. (e.g. A Welsh Lullaby’)
Paula Fan’s playing is always sympathetic, however, I felt that every so often the accompaniment was just a little too much in the background, with the baritone to the fore.

All in all, an enjoyable CD. I would suggest that the listener take a handful of songs at time, rather than plough through all 26 at one sitting. Parry overload, even for Parry enthusiasts can be a bad thing.  Taking this repertoire slowly will allow the full impact of these melodies to sink into the mind. There is no doubt that many are ‘minor’ masterpieces that deserve their place in the pantheon of ‘English’ Song.

Track Listing:
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)

[EL= English Lyrics]
Three Odes of Anacreon (trans. Thomas Moore): Away, away, you men of rules; Fill me, boy, as deep a draught; Golden hues of life are fled
Good night (Percy Bysshe Shelley) (EL Vol.1)
Take, O take those lips away (William Shakespeare) (EL Vol.2)
To Lucasta, on going to the wars (Richard Lovelace) (EL Vol.3)
If thou would'st ease thine heart (Thomas Lovell Beddoes) (EL Vol.3)
To Althea, from prison (Richard Lovelace) (EL Vol.3)
Why so pale and wan, fond lover (Sir John Suckling) (EL Vol.3)
Weep you no more: sad fountains (Anon.) (EL Vol.4)
Proud Maisie (Sir Walter Scott) (EL Vol.5)
Lay a garland on my hearse (Beaumont & Fletcher) (EL Vol.5)
A Welsh lullaby (Edmund O. Jones) (EL Vol.5)
When comes my Gwen (Edmund O. Jones) (EL Vol.6)
And yet I love her till I die (Anon.) (EL Vol.6)
Love is bable (Anon.) (EL Vol.6)
Under the greenwood tree (William Shakespeare) (EL Vol.6)
On a time, the amorous Silvy (Anon.) (EL Vol.7)
Ye little birds that sit and sing (Thomas Heywood) (EL Vol.7)
O never say that I was false of heart: Sonnet CIX (William Shakespeare) (EL Vol.7)
Sleep (Julian Strugis) (EL Vol.7)
Nightfall in winter (Langdon Elwyn Mitchell) (EL Vol.8)
Dirge in woods (George Meredith) (EL Vol.8)
Grapes (Julian Sturgis) (EL Vol.8)
Armida's garden (Mary Coleridge) (EL Vol.9)
Dream pedlary (Thomas Lovell Beddoes) (EL Vol.12)
Jeremy Huw Williams (baritone), Paula Fan (piano)
Rec. 10-12 January 2018, Jeff Haskell Recording Studio, University of Arizona
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published. 

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