Monday 22 January 2024

Dreams, Desires, Desolation: English Song

The Artists’ Foreword in the booklet explains that the ethos behind this recital is to provide a potpourri of songs that are “very familiar…[with] some relatively unknown ones, and a few that were very popular in their day but have fallen out of fashion.” To construct this eclectic selection, they have chosen texts that reflect the emotions of “dreams, desires and desolation.” Three world premiere recordings are included. The project was born out of the enforced isolation caused by Covid19, during which time Trevor Alexander and Peter Crockford learnt many songs “that we had always wanted to work on but had never had the time.”

Two of the premieres are by the Nottingham born composer Clive Pollard. Go song of mine sets a text by the Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti and The Cloths of Heaven, the well-known poem by W.B. Yeats. Both show that Pollard has synthesised the character of English lieder from the early to mid-twentieth century.

I was excited about hearing Autumn by the émigré German musician Peter Gellhorn, who came to London in 1935, due to Nazi persecution. His setting of Walter de la Mare’s poem is atmospheric and bleak. I heard the influence of Britten in these pages. Sadly, this recording is one of only a handful by Gellhorn available. Surely other musicians could assume his cause.

Drawing room ballads include Love’s garden of roses by Haydn Wood and Amy Woodforde-Finden’s Kashmiri Love Song. Both were immensely popular in their day but now tend to be ignored by singers. Perhaps they are deemed as too saccharine? I have not heard anything by Charles Marshall before. The notes explain that he was not prolific, with only about fifteen songs to his credit. One that became famous was I hear you calling me: it was one of Count John McCormack signature tunes. That said, all three are outstanding examples of this forgotten (and often despised) category.

Amongst the English composers there are two numbers from the Dutch-born, conductor/composer Richard Hageman and the American Broadway composer Lucy Simon. Both are responsive to the character of the genre.

It was good to hear representative works from Frank Bridge, Frederick Keel and Cecil Armstrong Gibbs. The latter’s Silver to words by Walter de la Mare is regarded as definitive amongst nearly two dozen competitors. Cyril Scott is best recalled for his idiosyncratic piano music however he was also a prolific song writer. One of his best known is his “lyrical and haunting” Christina Rossetti setting Lullaby.

Big hitters include Butterworth’s Is my team ploughing, RVW’s Silent Noon from his Rossetti cycle The House of Life, and his The sky above the roof, as well as John Ireland’s If there were dreams to sell and Roger Quilter’s Now sleeps the crimson petal. Little need be said about these save they are beautifully performed here.

The liner notes have been assembled by the performers. They give details about the composers and authors of the poems, but typically only a short paragraph about the actual songs themselves. It is a pity that texts were not included in the booklet, as many, if not all, are out of copyright. There are short resumés of both artists.

The performances are well wrought. Both performers are clearly enamoured by their chosen repertoire. There is no condescension in the “drawing room” ballads.

I understand that as part of the original Covid19 project several other songs were rehearsed including some French chanson. It would be instructive to hear Trevor Alexander and Peter Crockford turn their attention to Fauré, Duparc and Debussy. Meanwhile, I look forward to hearing this team in further performances of English song. There is certainly much to explore, both well-known and forgotten.

Track Listing:
George Butterworth (1885-1916)
Is my team ploughing?
Frank Bridge (1879-1941)
Come to me in my dreams
Charles Marshall (1857-1927)
I hear you calling me
Roger Quilter (1877-1953)
Now sleeps the crimson petal
Clive Pollard (b.1959)
Go song of mine
Richard Hageman (1881-1966)
Do not go my love
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Silent Noon
Frederick Keel (1871-1954)
Victor Hely-Hutchinson (1901-47)
Dream Song
Frank Bridge
What shall I your true love tell?
Haydn Wood (1882-1959)
Love’s garden of roses
Peter Gellhorn (1912-2004)
John Ireland (1879-1962)
If there were dreams to sell (Dream-Pedlary)
Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960)
Clive Pollard
The cloths of heaven
Ralph Vaughan Williams
The sky above the roof
Cyril Scott (1879-1970)
Amy Woodforde-Finden (1860-1919)
Kashmiri Love Song
Roger Quilter
I arise from dreams of thee
Frank Bridge
Journey’s End
Lucy Simon (1940-2022)
How could I ever know? (from The Secret Garden)
Trevor Alexander (baritone), Peter Crockford (piano)
rec. 20 June, 15 August and 17 October 2021, Henry Wood Hall, London.
Divine Art DDX 21114

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