IN PRAISE OF WOMAN -
150 YEARS OF ENGLISH WOMEN COMPOSERS
27 songs by 15 English women
Anthony Rolfe Johnson/Graham
Graham Johnson gives every sign of being omniscient. Schubert and Schumann,
English song, chansons and so much else. Industry is one thing but Johnson
and the broad chapel of singers with which he works also draw on deep wells
of sensitivity. One has the impression that he would not tackle a project
unless he felt passionately that he and his collaborators could do it well.
The present disc proceeds from a point early in the nineteenth century to
the latest song from early in the 1940s.
My impressions of the songs, as performed on this disc, are follows:-
Miss L H of Liverpool (no dates given): My Mother - charming
and rather Mozartian.
Caroline Norton (1808-77): Juanita - a touch of salon and
Virginia Gabriel (1825-77): Orpheus. A more developed romantic
taste with leanings towards Beethoven's An Die Ferne
Annie Fortescue Harrison (1851-1944): In the Gloaming. Drawing
room sensibility - strong on a somewhat liquid Schumann brand of
Maude Valérie White (1855-1937): The Throstle - a much
more developed romantic song already the foundations are laid for a new golden
age of British song as borne high by Gurney, Butterworth and Finzi. My
soul is an enchanted boat. This is a big (5.50) darker doleful song of
clouded moonlight. The Devout Lover: how easily this could slip in
amongst the Five Elizas of Ivor Gurney. So we'll go no more a roving
is not given a 'yo-ho-ho' treatment. Blessedly it proceeds with a yearning
nocturnal floating quality a little influenced by the romance of the Brahms
Teresa Del Riego (1876?-1968): Slave Song rings gently and
follows a simple sad melodic line. Not a patch on the White songs.
Liza Lehmann (1862-1918): A widow bird sate mourning is quietly
sentimental lifted from poverty by the dissonant pp piano figures.
Ah moon of my delight is just a bit too hearty for its own good (at
least in the initial piano introduction) but the singer takes the words of
Omar Khayyam and rings them turbulent passion and fluency. It is my misfortune
that whenever I see these words I think of Bantock's far superior setting.
As if too confound me Lehmann's perfect setting of Ben Jonson's The Liliy
of a Day reminds me that 'In small proportions we just beauties see /
And in short measures, life may perfect be.' Then a complete change of gear
for the the mock serious setting of Henry King and the wheedlingly
ironic Charles Augustus Fortescue from 'Cautionary Verses' by Hilaire
Amy Woodforde-Finden (1860-1919): Till I Wake and Pale Hands
I Loved, numbers 4 and 3 from Four Indian Love Lyrics, the first
portentous and the second well known for its archetypical lyrical fall and
Ethel Smyth (1858 a rare typo in the booklet -1944): Possession is
a complex love song - more a psychological scena in the manner of Finzi's
Clock of the Years and charting Smyth's love for Christabel Pankhurst
during their joint association with the Women's Emancipation
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979): The Aspidistra - is an essay in
irony - an updated spin on the Lehmann Belloc settings with hints of Berners'
Champagne Charlie and Bernstein's Strauss, Strauss and Straus.
Shy One is a complete change to a more tender and sincere domesticity
clearly influenced by Dunhill's Cloths of Heaven.
Elizabeth Poston (1905-87). Poston's In Praise of Woman (one
of five songs of 1928) bears eloquent signs of her contact with the 'modern
antiquity' of Peter Warlock.
Braced for a chilly change I was surprised by the determinedly tonal accents
of As I walked out one evening (an Auden setting) where the dramatic
lines given to the singer look backwards toward Vaughan Williams' 'Noisy
bells' and 'Coloured counties'. I would never have guessed that this was
by Elisabeth Lutyens (1907-1990s).
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1990s): Have you seen but a bright lily grow
(Ben Jonson). This and the Herrick setting Meditation on his Mistress
show a slightly more complex mode of expression but still essentially
Madeleine Dring (1923-77)is closer in style to that other master of
British song, Geoffrey Bush and with a foot in a jazzy milieu. She would
go well in style with Samuel Barber's ..... opera. The two songs are Crabbed
Age and Youth and To the virgins.
Phyllis Tate (1911-87): Finally and suitably there is Phyllis
Tate's regretful Raleigh setting Epitaph which would fit with
little incongruity into Gerald Finzi's cycle O Fair to See.
The notes by Sophie Fuller are perfect of their type with photos (where
available) of the composers.
This is an encyclopedia in microcosm of the genius and talent of English
women composers in the field of song. Heaven preserve us from too academic
a reputation for this disc so let me also add that the disc is a satisfying
musical recital in its own right and, be assured, you will make discoveries
that will lead you further into this repertoire.
If Hyperion were tempted to make sequel I am sure it would be a success if
it featured the same artists.
If Hyperion and Graham Johnson are looking for new song projects let me recommend
strongly the complete songs of C W Orr, Nikolai Medtner and Josef Marx.