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Silent Noon

Three Shakespeare Songs:

Come away, Death [2.46]
O Mistress mine [1.35]
Blow,blow, thou Winter Wind [2.29]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)

Sleep [3.13]
Frederick KEEL (1871-1954)

Three Salt-water Ballads:

I. Port of many Ships [2.16]
II. Trade Winds [2.13]
III. Mother Carey [1.41]
Dilys ELWYN-EDWARDS (*1918)

The Cloths of Heaven [2.32]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Silent Noon [3.35]
Linden Lea [2.21]

Now sleeps the Crimson Petal [2.15]
Weep you no more [2.28]
Go, lovely Rose [2.51]
Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937)

A Shropshire Lad:

I. Loveliest of Trees the Cherry now [1.56]
II. When I was one-and-twenty [1.16]
III. There pass the careless People [1.37]
IV. In Summertime on Bredon [3.24]
V. The Street sounds to the Soldiers’ tread [2.12]
VI. On the idle hill of Summer [2.37]
VII. White in the moon the long road lies [3.03]
VIII. Think no more, Lad; laugh, be jolly [1.49]
IX. Into my Heart an Air that kills [1.54]
X. The Lads in their hundreds [2.42]
Michael HEAD (1900-1976)

Money, O! [2.14]
The Lord’s Prayer [2.15]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

Folksong Arrangements:

The Sally Gardens [2.15]
Oliver Cromwell [0.46]
The foggy, foggy Dew [2.32]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)

Captain Stratton’s Fancy [1.57]
Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)

Love is a Bable [1.43]
Thomas Frederick DUNHILL (1877-1946)

The Cloths of Heaven [2.13]

(Charles Villiers STANFORD, 1852-1924)
The Aquiline Snub [2.05]
The Compleat Virtuoso [1.23]
Bryn Terfel (bass-baritone), Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded at the Henry Wood Hall, London in July 2003 and July 2004. DDD
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON 00289 474 2192 [74.23]


Wonderful to see a second disc of English song from Bryn Terfel, again on the Deutsche Grammophon label. This compilation contains some lovely songs, with the composers featured ranging from Stanford and Parry to Warlock and Britten. As with his first disc of RVW, Finzi, Ireland and Butterworth it focuses on the early twentieth century - the great renaissance period of English music. There is a good mixture of the familiar (Quilter, Warlock, Vaughan Williams) and the less-well-known (Frederick Keel, Dunhill and Michael Head, and Somervell’s Shropshire Lad) rather than the Butterworth version, or Vaughan Williams’ Housman cycle On Wenlock Edge, exquisite though they are!). There are some nice touches in Terfel’s singing, and he is able to bring a song vividly to life. Yet he has a great deal to live up to with those others singers who have devoted themselves to a greater extent to English solo song. He does not always manage to rival their easy way with this music. I find a few other small matters of concern regarding his essays into this repertoire, which just slightly spoil an otherwise superb disc.

The collection opens with that masterful craftsman of song, Roger Quilter, with his Three Shakespeare Songs. What strikes one immediately is that Terfel seems very concerned with the words and enunciation – more so, apparently, than with the meaning of the song. This results in beautifully pronounced crystal clarity, but at the expense of emotion. Another rather strange characteristic in these songs is how he seems to pull back on the words rather than propelling the song along and letting the words flow naturally. This creates a rather stilted effect, almost jerky in O Mistress Mine, with rather unmusically forced rhythms and words (listen to the word "co-ffin" in Come away Death). I also found the singing slightly breathy, and prefer the smooth, unlaboured, instinctive radiant beauty and natural fluidity of Anthony Rolfe Johnson’s version (Hyperion – Songs by Roger Quilter). Yet Terfel brings a beautiful tone, appealingly dulcet for example, in the line "But what is love" (O Mistress Mine), and in that one song alone shows an admirable ability to range from bold and loud to sweet, gentle and light. He also gives a brilliantly brash and blustery performance of Blow blow, thou Winter Wind.

On to Gurney’s Sleep, where there are some pleasing touches, such as his well-timed vibrato on "bereaving". Yet on the whole I felt that this song was not agonised or tortured enough, and Terfel is unable to compete with the tormented Luxon on Chandos or Agnew on Hyperion, whose tormented inflexions he lacks. I also find his words rather too marked and plodding, although he compares favourably with Bostridge on the EMI Classics English Songbook disc and with Martyn Hill on Hyperion’ s War’s Embers disc.

The slightly stilted wording continues – in Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon, we find Terfel creating a good atmosphere but holding back on the second syllables of words with an odd hesitation, and similarly, in Linden Lea we get the halted "Sin-ging", for example. The Vaughan Williams songs bring to light another aspect that I personally find extremely off-putting (though others may not), and that it is the hard "a"s. Noticeable in Silent Noon ("pasture", "glass", "clasp"), they are far more glaring here, particularly in "master" and "faster". These come again and again throughout the rest of the disc – most notably in "fast" in Quilter’s Weep you no more and in Britten’s The Foggy, Foggy Dew, in "answer" and "after" in Somervell’s In summertime on Bredon, and in "passed" and "grass" in The Sally Gardens. After some time this gets deeply irritating, and mars what would otherwise be very attractive singing.

Otherwise, this is a characterful performance of Linden Lea. Terfel takes it quite fast (half a minute faster than Luxon, for example), and this completely changes the character of the song, rendering it lively and almost merry rather than lyrical and hauntingly beautiful. I would far prefer the devastating charm of a more sensitive slower pace and more melancholic air, but this is a valid and interesting interpretation.

Other songs on the disc cannot be faulted – the Keel Three Salt-Water Ballads are all extremely well done, in a brilliant local accent, and the other three Quilter songs are well-performed, with great delicacy in Now sleeps the Crimson Petal, and an alluringly dreamy and tender Weep you no more – one of the best tracks on this disc. Somervell’s A Shropshire Lad is also given a very good performance, although it does not quite reach the heights of compelling sensitivity and spirited evocation that David Wilson-Johnson and David Owen Norris so masterfully and effortlessly attain.

Yet Terfel’ s When I was one and twenty is excellent (he has precisely the right kind of voice for this song), and he is perfectly swash-buckling in The street sounds to the soldiers tread.

The Michael Head songs are performed with a lovely dark tone, and the only problem here is an almost imperceptible background noise in the piano introduction in the (dare I say it, slightly dreary) The Lord’s Prayer.

Three of Britten’s folksong arrangements ensue – The Sally Gardens, in which I missed the wistfulness of Langridge accompanied by Graham Johnson (Collins Classics), Robert Tear on EMI Classics, or even Bostridge on Virgin Classics. Terfel takes the song slightly too fast, thus losing the air of reverie and reflection, yet he makes up for it with lovely little inflexions and touches, such as a little whining sigh on last "And now am full". I also found Oliver Cromwell falling slightly behind its competitors. Slightly slower than Tear, it does not come across as quite jokey enough – it is taken too seriously and needs a lighter, more nonchalant (and possibly slightly more raucous) treatment. The Foggy Foggy Dew is probably the song on this disc that Terfel imbues with the greatest amount of character – he makes the song really quite funny, but slightly overdoes it. The best version of this I have ever heard was Christopher Maltman singing it live, in an understated but still brilliantly characterised version, which made clear to all the meaning of the song without making a song and dance about it as Terfel does here. Terfel starts with a nice emphasis on first "Woo-ed", followed by a very nice "Damn near died", where he slows right down, almost to a stop. Yet when we get to his squeaking "Just to keep", and his sharp intentional intake of breath after "live with my son", we might well wonder whether he isn’t going just a little over the top!

Warlock’s Captain Stratton’s Fancy is suitably rumbustious, and I like Terfel’s drunken slur on "roll beneath the bench". He also captures the delicacy of the lily and rose well, but I miss the parsimonious inflexions of the unbeatable Maltman (Collins Classics) on "Some that’s good and godly ones". Otherwise, Terfel’s version is excellent, and compares favourably to Robert Lloyd’s 1978 recording (EMI Classics).

Terfel proves that he can do dreamy, lyrical and gentle songs effectively as well as the rowdier numbers, in Dunhill’s Ye Cloths of Heaven, and brings the disc to an outstanding conclusion with two Lear settings of Stanford – the brilliant, brilliant The Aquiline Snub, and the Compleat Virtuoso, both of which he performs fantastically.

All in all, I would recommend this disc to all lovers of English song, although I would advise getting hold of alternate versions of some of the songs (John Mark Ainsley’s Quilter, Pear’s Britten, Robert Tear’s Vaughan Williams, Paul Agnew’s Gurney, David Wilson Johnson and Norris’s Somervell and Maltman’s Warlock) if one hasn’t already acquired them. The singing here is excellent, Terfel has a gorgeous rich, deep tone, and Malcolm Martineau is (unsurprisingly, given his experience in English song!) a faultless accompanist, and anyone who promotes English song is a top chap in my books!

Em Marshall

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