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David W. SOLOMONS (1953-)
Songs of Solomons
Stephen Taylor(counter-tenor), Jonathan Leonard (piano)
rec. Jan 2001

Listening to this disc, it suddenly penetrated the murky recesses of what passes for my brain that composers, performers, recording engineers, producers et cetera actually have something in common with me: they have families and friends. In response to the inevitable query concerning the relationship between this brilliantly incisive observation and the price of undeveloped chicken foetuses I can only reply, somewhat lamely, "Well, how would you feel if someone slated your Pride-And-Joy's best efforts, in print for all to see?" Life can be hard at times - and here I'm thinking of me, not you - so let's be brutally frank: criticism and conscience don't hack it quite like peaches and cream, do they? Do you start to detect the faint whiff of apology for a "bad review"? Maybe you do, but on the other hand I have my reasons for being empathetic - friends, family et cetera please take note!

So, what have we here? A CD - so far, so good - lasting a measly 38 minutes, and containing just 10 songs. The composer, David W. Solomons, is a self-taught musician, a keen chorister and guitarist, and runs a pretty hip web-site ( which features a gloriously quirky "bio-scrapbook". Pictured in the CD booklet, sporting a satisfied smirk presumably due largely to the glass of wine held at the ready, David looks like a chap after my own heart. Of course, with a name like his, as a writer of songs as well as choral, organ and chamber music, it was only a matter of time (and not much time, I'd guess!) before somebody came up with the title for this compilation (Rayna L. Harris is credited with having the fastest finger on the buzzer). In keeping with his formal education, he holds down a day job as a translator in Manchester, putting him in the same pot as the likes of Borodin: he's a "spare-time composer". However, there all similarity ends. The cover note tells us that "his compositional style is relatively retrospective, concentrating on the lyrical, and he makes full use of the possibilities offered by the use of modes, especially various oriental modes, [and] the Dorian and octatonic."

That's three points to ponder. I'll put Big Ticks against the first two - a lot of the songs on this CD sound a little like "Greensleeves meets Gregorian Chant", their curvaceous, asymmetrical, evolving lines redolent of some modal minstrel stranded out of time. Solomons really has the knack of spinning enchanting and evocative sequences of notes to charm the receptive receptor. There's an equally Big - if not Bigger - Cross against the last point, sufficient I fear to set me off on one of my tangential tirades. Harry Partch must be turning in his grave - he'd have told you pretty sharpish that a piano can't play modes, ancient or oriental, because modes are justly-intoned while the piano is rigidly, unswervingly tuned to twelve-tone equal temperament. It never ceases to amaze me how many musicians fail abysmally to appreciate the radically chalk-and-cheese nature of just intonation and equal temperament - even Olivier Messiaen once appeared on the telly to demonstrate how thoroughly he had absorbed all the usual misconceptions! If I ruled the World, Partch's Genesis of a Music would be compulsory reading for all practical musicians (in the meantime, anyone wanting a "Noddy" introduction could do worse - just barely - than my article in The British Harry Partch Society Newsletter, Vol 3 No. 3, November 1999, or enquire via our esteemed CMOTW Editor). Anyway, to continue: the best you can manage on a piano is to approximate (like Bartók did), which in the intonation game puts you somewhere way beyond the ball-park. If you're going to "make full use of the possibilities offered", your singer would have to be accompanied by (say) a string quartet. Now then, David, that might be an interesting avenue to explore!

Whether or not you like the songs themselves is of course entirely up to you and your aural taste-buds. The technicalities of the recording are much less subjective, and it's here where I harbour grave doubts about this enterprise. Down through the years I've done a fair bit of recording - mostly of symphony orchestras and choirs, both in concert halls and churches - so I do have some practical experience of the art, and listening to this CD I am forced to wonder what on Earth (or possibly in some lower, warmer region) they thought they were playing at. If you want to capture sounds of an intimate nature - the dulcet tones of a counter-tenor with only a piano in tow - what sort of acoustic should you have? Well, if you must use a cavernous reverberation-chamber, which is what the chapel of Westminster College, Oxford sounds like here, where do you place your performers and microphone(s)? Well (again), if you place them at opposite ends of the chapel to one another, which is (again) what it sounds like here, how clear do you think they'll sound? "As mud" should just about cover it. I can see what they were hoping for: "dulcet tones hovering angelically in the firmament". It probably sounded wonderful in the flesh but, I fear, that's no guarantee that it will come across the same on a recording.

At least, it might have sounded wonderful "live", had not the piano been borrowed from a local pub, for that is the impression created by this clangorous beast. Nor did it help that it was played with the sort of sensitivity of touch that you often (used to?) get in a pub, except here the pianist was trying to penetrate not the rowdy atmosphere of a raucous Saturday night revelry but the murk of an ocean of enclosed, resonant air. It's a Catch-22: to get through, he has to play louder, and if he plays louder it stirs up the silt so the sound doesn't get through, et cetera et ad nauseam. There were also times when I became convinced that the sustaining pedal was jammed hard down and in need of a squirt of WD40. Checking the CD notes, I noted that Jonathan Leonard is really an organist. Perhaps it would have been wiser for him to have accompanied these songs on the organ. I am pretty convinced that simple excess of distance is at the bottom of it all, because from the very outset the recording sounded curiously monophonic, as though "seen" through the wrong end of a (quite powerful) telescope, with Stephen Taylor seemingly perched on the piano lid. At least, he is for all but track 7 where he takes a minor excursion to our right and a little forward. Come track 8, though, he's draped across the piano lid again, like Michelle Pfeiffer in that "Baker Boys" film (though, judging from his photograph, maybe I'm letting my imagination run away with me a bit - no offence, Stephen; take comfort in the fact that you can sing better than she can!). Neither did it help that, with such over-preponderance of "atmosphere", that ambience is faded out right on the tail of each song, forcibly reminding me of its dominating presence during the music. The simple expedient of bringing the (main?) microphone closer to the action would have brought voice and piano into better focus, pushed the reverberation into reasonable proportion, and introduced a little air between the performers. Then they could have concentrated on maximising the beauty of the musical lines, and I'd have been a much happier bunny! Maybe, though, you like an acoustic like a deserted swimming bath - if so, you'll just love this, believe me.

Moving on now to the songs themselves, half of them - Dawn in the Room, The Quiet Way You Move Me, The Swallows, Rose, and Invitation to the Journey are slow and introspective. Swallowed whole, I found the "Gregorian Chant Effect" creeping in: a vague feeling of uniformity which is largely a result of a progressive line taking precedence over distinctive melody. So (he observes wryly), don't swallow them whole. Maybe it would have helped (both the "recital programme" and the playing time), if a couple of Solomons' guitar pieces had bee included? Stephen Taylor isn't quite in the Alfred Deller/James Bowman class, lacking that last ounce (around 28.3 grammes, in Euros) of control that would have released that unique counter-tenor "floating" quality that always lifts my hackles in this sort of song. Nevertheless, his credentials are creditable, so I'm going to put some of the comparatively rough-hewn quality of his voice down to doing battle with that damnable acoustic - if he can sing duets with James Bowman, which he has, he's got to sound better than this recording lets him. In these five songs, there are places where the piano part can sound a bit like the accompaniment we used to get for our (so-called) hymn-singing at school assembly - in other words, not entirely in sympathy with the sweet sensuality of the singing line. Now and then I felt that the dynamics of the music ran contrary to the poetry of the words, though maybe this was just me failing to appreciate some subtle, intentional ambiguity. However, there is one thing of which I am absolutely sure: while the style of Solomons' lyricism is indeed admirably suited to continually evolving melody, there are times when for some unfathomable reason he chooses to double back, repeating whole swadges for all the world as if these were Handelian arias. Be warned: in the poem of The Quiet Way You Move Me the word "quiet" occurs just the once, but in the course of the song I started to get irritated by the repetitions of the over-stressed "Kwai-yet". Having demonstrated such a bent for eloquent, poetic continuity, to interrupt the flow in this way is not only disruptive, it simply isn't necessary.

Two of the songs are settings each of four Haikus, a really neat idea. One of them, Christmas Haikus, doesn't quite come off (and I'm not entirely sure that the final stanza's suggestion, that Holly has thorns, is botanically accurate), but the other, Haviranosan no Haiku, is an absolute gem! Mark Haviland's crystalline little poems exude a subtle oriental odour, translated by Solomons' inspired vocal writing into a world running closely parallel to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (now, there's a compliment!). On top of that, the sharply-etched piano part mirrors the voice like the water does the "little pavilion" in the third song of Mahler's great symphonic cycle, and (probably coincidentally) because it is so keen it cuts through the bilge-wash of the acoustic like a knife! This is an utterly lovely little song.

The other three songs are all up-beat and comical, but variable in quality and impact, the "swimming bath" invariably taking its toll on the percussive piano. Greek Wassail, "suggesting a critique of the less 'culturally-inclined' holidaymaker", is perhaps the weakest, if only because its lyrics (like the others, by Solomons himself) fail to fully explore the thesis: the words of the two verses are too nearly identical, like two refrains in which are embedded merely hints of verses. Lookin' just Lookin' takes a truly wicked prod at "lonely hearts" adverts, but the thrusting, jazzy "swing" style, rendered relentless by its rigid refrain, just does not suit the counter-tenor voice, which innately lacks the kind of aggressive attack needed to ram home the punch-lines. Finally we have Ludhe sing tishu, a mickey-take on Sumer is i-cumen in, which "is dedicated to hay-fever sufferers everywhere". As with Haviranosan no Haiku, I momentarily forgot the booming environment, but for entirely different reasons: this is an absolute hoot, in both senses of the word! The composer's words have an elegant wit straight out of Noel Coward's top drawer (well - second drawer, maybe), with lines like "Breathing wheezeth hooter sneezeth misery for you" scanned to a "T", and the whole littered with interjected olfactory sforzandi. You find yourself wondering if a dose of David Solomons might make a better hay-fever antidote than anti-histamine!

I mentioned having reasons for feeling empathetic. Firstly, I admit to feeling a kinship with the recording engineer, who (like me) is not a professional although, as you can see from his web-site,, making recordings is nevertheless a very big part of his life. Secondly, I get the impression that this CD is a "family affair", made perhaps less for commercial gain than out of a mutual love and respect between the composer and performers, and a natural desire to share that with the rest of us. OK, so it's not "great music", these are not "great performances", and it's not a "great recording", but there is warmth and affection of a familiar kind - and you should at least listen to it even if you don't buy it. I can neatly sum it all up by pointing you to the CD booklet front cover, a reproduction of a still-life painting, of an apple, an orange - and a lemon!

Paul Serotsky

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