> SOMERVELL Song Cycles CDH55089 [JQ]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Sir Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937)

Song Cycles:
Maud [35.36]
A Shropshire Lad [23.27]
David Wilson-Johnson (baritone); David Owen Norris (piano)
Recorded March 1985
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55089 [59.14] Budget price


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The first reason for recommending this CD is the excellent and informative notes by Stephen Banfield (the distinguished biographer of Gerald Finzi). In saying this I do not mean by implication to diminish either the music or the performances. However, Banfieldís notes are an important starting point for they set these two song cycles in context.

As Prof. Banfield points out, it was not until the 1880s that the solo song recital was introduced to England. Consequently, Somervellís cycles (he wrote four in all of which these two were the first and second) were pioneering works in several respects. Not only were they among the very first cycles to be composed in this country, they were also among the first examples of narrative cycles in English and, finally, the Shropshire Lad cycle "comprises the earliest traceable Housman settings". Thus, in addition to their intrinsic merits these Somervell settings deserve to be judged as important, pioneering English compositions.

The earlier of the two cycles here is Maud, in which Somervell makes his own selection of passages from the 28 poems which comprise Tennysonís original 1855 monodrama. Somervell constructed a cycle of 13 songs from this material. Listeners are referred to Stephen Banfieldís notes for detailed comment on the composerís choice of texts. The music itself owes much to German romanticism but in this Somervell was far from alone (influences of Brahms and, especially, Schumann are evident, for example in many of Stanfordís songs). One cannot get away from the fact that Somervellís music for this cycle is derivative and his is not as distinctive a voice as, say, Gurney or Finzi. However, there is much to enjoy and admire in these songs.

Iím not sure that Somervell quite meets the challenge posed by some of the more dramatic images in Tennysonís verses but thereís an appealing, simple dignity to some songs (ĎShe came to the village churchí or ĎI have led her homeí). Again, the quick waltz tempo and rippling accompaniment for ĎCome into the garden, Maudí produces a charming effect.

In the last four songs the mood darkens. Gone is the youthful ardour with which the narrator wooed the young Maud. The story has moved on and these final songs deal with enforced parting and death. Iím not quite sure that Somervellís music can really encompass the intense, almost neurotic emotion of Tennysonís text here but, if not, it is a "near miss" and Somervellís cause is advanced nobly here, as it is throughout the disc, by David Wilson-Johnsonís singing.

A Shropshire Lad comprises ten of A. E. Housmanís poems. The problem with this cycle for the listener is, I think, greater familiarity due to the fact that other composers, such as Butterworth, Vaughan Williams, Gurney and Finzi have subsequently made fine settings which are more frequently heard nowadays. However, if Somervellís songs are judged on their own merits, as they should be, they can be enjoyed greatly.

Housmanís poetry lends itself to strophic setting more than does Tennysonís. Furthermore, the emotions expressed on the poetry are more direct. These features may suit Somervellís musical temperament better, I suspect for in this Housman cycle he adopts what is to my ears a more fluent and Ďsimpleí style. With hindsight, I suspect that he was more comfortable with the less heroic and less romantic style of Housman. Certainly I think these verses suit his muse better.

Several of his chosen poems were later set by other composers, sometimes memorably. However, two or three of Somervellís choices were not subsequently set by anyone else, so far as I know, and these songs are therefore of particular interest. I would commend especially the deeply eloquent setting of ĎWhite in the moon the long road liesí.

This cycle is a fine collection of Housman settings and they deserve not to be overshadowed by the more celebrated and frequently heard settings by other composers.

Having begun by praising the liner notes I must finish by being just as enthusiastic about the performances. It is hard to think that a better case could be made for these songs. David Wilson-Johnson sings marvellously, responding to all the different moods of the songs. His is a commanding voice, which suits the heroic songs, but he can fine down his tone to a lovely, well-spun piano with no loss of intensity. Always he conveys a palpable sense of line and an involvement which draws in the listener. Full texts are provided but these are scarcely necessary since his diction is exemplary (though I think that he does overdo the rolled "rís" a bit). Throughout, he receives superb support from David Owen Norris.

The recorded sound is full and clear with the performers set in a credible acoustic. This reissue is greatly to be welcomed and should be heard by all lovers of English song. Strongly recommended.
John Quinn


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