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JEFFREYS, John ; Of Fire and Dew - 21 Baritone Songs Jonathan Veira, baritone, Shelley Katz, piano SOMMCD 218



It’s good to note that the prolific song output of John Jeffreys (b. 1927) is receiving some attention. Only last year I reviewed for the English Poetry and Song Society a collection of 24 performed by Ian Partridge, a well-nigh perfect singer of English song and his excellent sister-accompanist, Jennifer. Here the songs are for baritone. Jonathan Veira, possessed of a rich, and warmly-appealing voice, reflects the mood of each song with keen insight. His absolute clarity of diction renders the booklet of words (with its numerous typographical errors) almost unnecessary. Shelley Katz, the pianist, accompanies expertly, exploring the varied piano styles with technical assurance and emo-tional insight.

Jeffreys is skilful at synthesising voice and piano into a happy union. The piano writing sounds, despite its technical difficulties, thoroughly suited to the instrument. And as for the vocal parts none would deny the composer’s complete assurance with the musically effective transmutation of words.

Basically, Jeffreys seems to use three main styles, naturally sub-suming many other features. Firstly there is a late-romantic warmth which imbues many of the textures as in Northumberland (W W Gibson), The farewell (Burns) and I will make you brooches (Stevenson); secondly there is frequent use of ballad type-treatment, reflected in melodies of folk-like character, though underpinned by subtly-changing harmonic textures. Thirdly Jeffreys often creates intense drama of - at times - quite horrifying impact. This last quality is apparent in Sweeney the mad (anon.12th/13th century) with its long, harrowing prelude, A Lyke-wake Dirge (anon. Scots 15th century) and Barry Duane Hill’s sombre poem The Reaper, again treated to a long piano prelude. In his Housman settings too (3 on this disc: When last I came to Ludlow; If it chance you eye offend you; Thirteen pence a day), the poet’s bitterness and death-haunted lines are reflected with similar angular dissonance. As is the tragedy in Hugh Roberton’s In Marley Wood, a poem with a similar quality to Housman.

Jeffreys includes many pictorial effects in his settings. In Ambulance Train (W W Gibson), there is a remarkable reflection of locomotion, comparable to that of the journeying boy in Britten’s setting of Hardy’s, Winter Words. Philip Scowcroft might note it for his collection of ‘train’ references in British Music. The march of soldiers in Thirteen pence a day (Housman) provides an aptly ominous background to the words.

In many of his songs, Jeffreys draws on a post-Quilterish harmony whose sentimentality does not always sit easily with the ‘early’ poems he sets. Notably in In Youth is Pleasure, he is not to my mind, as successful as either Moeran or Warlock in reflecting Robert Wever’s 16th-century text. (A similar comparison, unflattering to Quilter, can be observed between Quilter’s and Gurney’s settings of Fletcher’s Weep you no more, sad fountains). That said, I found Jeffreys’s set-ting of Now Wolde (anon. early 16th century) tugged mightily at my heart-strings - indeed I enjoyed it almost more than any song on the disc.

Many of the songs invite comparison with settings by other eminent British song-writers. Amongst these are I will go with my father a-ploughing (Joseph Campbell), This is the weather the cuckoo likes (Hardy), and The Salley Gardens (Yeats). In almost every case Jeffreys achieves a personal and equally effective setting.

Considering his vast output of 200 or so songs (four volumes of 120 are in print from Roberton), song enthusiasts should seek time to explore this significant and bountifully-gifted songwriter.


Brian Blyth Daubney


Brian Blyth Daubney

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