This recording, titled
"The Wagon of Life" and subtitled
"Songs of Nature, Life and Love
in Time and Place" was recorded
to mark the centenary of the birth of
Thomas Pitfield. Pitfield died at the
age of ninety-six, truly a venerable
old veteran whose life witnessed dramatic
changes in English music. An unwanted
child of elderly parents, Pitfield grew
up in an atmosphere antipathetic to
creative endeavour. "Godliness
is misery" seems to have been the
family philosophy. At fourteen, he was
sent to work in the engineering workshops
for the then thriving cotton industry.
Nonetheless, he taught himself to paint
and sketch, and to write poetry. One
of his pictures, of a tangled willow
bent into a stream provides the cover
illustration for this recording. He
was later to train as a teacher of art
and cabinet work; evidently, an all-round
craftsman. Although he spent a year
at the Royal Manchester School of Music,
he maintained that he was largely self-taught.
He wrote mostly chamber music and songs.
Surprisingly, only three are presented
here. The "Wagon of Life",
(1944) is a translation from Pushkin
by Alice Pitfield, who, though English,
grew up in Russia. Its jaunty, jerking
rhythms show originality, and it deserves
its position as the keynote piece in
the whole recording. The mysterious
"By the Dee at Night" (1964)
is set to a poem by Pitfield himself,
as is "September Lovers" (1947).
All three have a timeless quality which
would make it hard to determine when
they were written, were it not for the
two sheets of notes that make up the
Two other Pitfield
poems are set by Stuart Scott : "Alderley"
and "Gawsworth" As soon as
I heard these, I thought "he must
have known Pitfield" so strongly
do they seem to evoke Pitfield’s personality.
And indeed, this was the case. "Alderley"
has a jaunty wit about it, while "Gawsworth"
is more introspective. Taught by Lennox
Berkeley, Scott is a fairly prolific
composer with many orchestral, chamber
and solo pieces behind him.
Geoffrey Kimpton studied
in Vienna and was a viola player in
the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.
His three songs here benefit from an
unusual, lilting piano line, and charming
"rippling" expressions. "Faintheart
in a Railway Station" illustrates
its text dramatically. Here, the music
might shine better transcribed for a
voice more agile than bass-baritone.
A pathologist and mother,
Joanna Treasure sets a poem by her father
about a 1940s dance-hall encounter.
Its tango rhythms and exuberance have
a delightful freshness, even more effective
than the more ambitious and longer "I
saw the Girl".
is one of John R. Williamson’s finest
settings of Housman. Although he said
he was unaware of how extensively the
poet had been set when he started composing
on the Housman oeuvre, he has now written
some 100 settings. Their outstanding
character is established by "palindromic"
effects: notes going in patterns one
way and then back. Unlike most of the
other songs in this collection, they
acknowledge the modern age, with interesting
Louis MacNeice’s poem
"The Sunlight on the Garden"
is so inherently lyrical that it cries
out for a musical setting. Stephen Wilkinson’s
setting is non-interventionist, in contrast
to his setting of Andrew Marvell’s "The
Garden", which is one of the most
"twentieth century" and unusual
of the songs in this set, with its dancing
The two youngest composers
here, Philip Wood and Sasha Johnson
Manning are perhaps the most traditional,
in the sense that they could belong
to any time in the last fifty years.
Tennyson’s "Now sleeps the crimson
petal" was written on holiday in
Greece. Manning’s two songs based on
biblical texts incorporate a sense of
"palindrome" too, but smaller
and tighter circles of revolving sound.
Kevin George Brown
gives Philip Larkin’s "Dying Day"
a quiet, almost eerie setting based
on long strings of single notes. These
same distinctive extended lines feature
too, in his setting of the sixteenth
century courtier, Henry Howard.
Even more atmospheric
are songs from the cycle "Songs
of the Clifftop" by David Golightly.
These describe sea-birds and natural
sights on a cliff over the ocean. The
vividness of the images is described
well. "The Sea Bird" seems
to float soundlessly in the air, just
as a sea-bird circles in flight, hovering,
not flapping. This music is keenly observed,
as if the composer has spent time alone
with nature, understanding its pulse.
It is subtle, and unobtrusive, as if
the composer knows that anything too
emphatic might startle the birds and
send them fleeing. It is made for visual
imagination – how beautiful and effective
it would be combined with a good, sensitive
nature documentary, that most noble
form of British film art. It would also
be a rewarding challenge to perform
in David Forshaw’s first song has a
similar feel, although owls have quite
different habitats to the soaring sea-birds
in Golightly’s songs. "The Horse"
starts off as a paean to wild horses
galloping free across the plains – hooves
evoked in the music. The horse then
becomes a "colossus" and "the
sweat of honest work" and the song
continues in a declamatory vein to loud
dominant chords in a firm key.
As a sampler of the
music being made in the Manchester region,
this recording is useful. It is good
value as it has 28 tracks – the last
Dunelm recording I listened to had twelve.
I would have liked to have heard more
of Pitfield, and was surprised that
he is only connected with five pieces,
as poet and as composer. Nonetheless,
it is a showcase for the other, later
composers. The singer, Mark Rowlinson,
is widely experienced, though the depth
of his very bass-oriented baritone lends
itself to some songs better than others.
The pianist, Peter Lawson teaches at
the Royal Northern College of Music.