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Horace KEATS (1895-1945)
SONGS
Yellow Bracken (1937) (John Cowper Powys) *
In what other places do you live (1941) (Russell Henderson) *
Love's Secret (1934) (William Blake) *
The Orange Tree (1938) (John Shaw Neilson) *
Sea-Wraith (1939) (J J Donnelly) +
Galleons (1937) (Kenneth Mackenzie) +
We sat entwined (1936) (Christopher J Brennan) *
Sun after rain (1941) (Hugh McCrae) *
Am I shut out of mine own heart (1937) (Brennan) *
White Heather (1943) (Edith Sterling Levis) *
Of old, on her terrace at evening (1945) (Brennan) +
The Trespass (1940) (Hugh McCrae) +
Echo (1936) (Christina Rossetti) * **
Columbine (1940) (Hugh McCrae) *
The point of noon (1936) (Brennan) *
Moonlit apples (1940) (John Drinkwater) *
Spring breezes (1939) (Brennan) *
Fear (1935) (Michel Montaigne) +
Heaven Haven (1937) (Gerard Manley Hopkins) *
Versicle (1940) (McCrae) +
Over the quiet waters (1943?) (Herbert Brandon) *
Goldfish (1935) (Kenneth Mackenzie) +
Plucking the rushes (1935?) (anon Chinese) *
The fishing pools (1934) (Mackenzie) +
Once I could sit by the fire hour long (1943) (Brennan) *
The Roads beside the sea (1942) (Brandon) +
Drake's call (1943) (Brandon) +
Wendy Dixon (sop) *
John Pringle (bar) +
Martina Marsden (violin) **
David Miller (piano)
rec 11-15 Dec 2000, ABC's Eugene Goossens Hall, Ultimo, Sydney, Australia, DDD
ABC CLASSICS 472 225-2
[78.27]
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Horace Keats was born in London in 1895 and began his musical life as a ship’s pianist criss-crossing the oceans finding himself in Australia in 1915. He secured extensive employment accompanying silent films and directing small bands and joined the then burgeoning radio stations, notably ABC. It wasn’t until he was in Perth however in the early 1930s that he set to composition, challenged by his wife to set some Chinese lyrics to music. Keats set a notable amount of poetry by his contemporaries over the course of the next decade or so – especially Hugh McCrae and he extensively mined the poetry of Christopher Brennan with a single-mindedness that recalls Finzi’s settings of Hardy.

Keats could "do" hearty and he could equally apply himself to the lambency of some of these settings; deeper and richer veins of meaning were certainly not beyond him either and the best of these settings are conspicuously impressive. What this disc successfully conveys is the intelligence and alertness with which he makes poetic decisions; he has a quick and precise ear. That said we open with the rip roarer Yellow Bracken followed immediately and deliberately in a programming imperative by In What Other Place Do You Live? This 1941 song to words by Russell Henderson, a contemporary of Keats, has a quicksilver, circular piano part and an elliptical vocal line that adds considerable depth and ambiguity to lines that might otherwise be thought to be rather too Tennysonian for comfort. Its haunting ethos is conveyed in the most simple and most sparing way whilst being also the most effective. Love’s Secrets strikes me as rather generically romanticised for all the poignancy of the last line. Keats’ abiding sense of late Romantic conviction is conveyed in The Orange Tree – this is less mystic than heightened in feeling with a very pretty piano part, and very rewarding to hear. The Sea-Wraith brings with it strong and salient hints of Debussy, modified by Keats’ temperament into something somewhat more forthright, less vulnerable; how admirably he makes the telling caesura in the line Drew back as she passed them by.

Keats was alive to different influences. Chinoiserie haunts Galleons with its chiming piano part whereas We sat entwined has a lush and luxuriant piano part with a postlude of especial beauty. Sun After Rain is a rather declamatory affair with a busy – and eloquent – accompaniment that thins to rapt simplicity in the last line. The Celtic happily haunts White Heather, a winning piece of balladry full of faerie doings but a stronger and deeper mark is made in Of Old, On Her Terrace At Evening in which the composer may be evoking, in the tragic tread of the piano part, something of the pain of the loss of his son, killed in action in the War. So Keats can cover the compositional ground, from quasi-impressionistic to ballad, to art song, all the while illuminated by a romantic sensibility quickly responsive to texts that can be allusive but are never obscurantist. Thus the setting of the Christina Rossetti poem that gives this disc its title. With its obbligato violin – very Paolo Tosti - this flirts with the generic but embraces the popular with aplomb in the same way that a song like The Point of Noon embraces the mantle of impressionism but ultimately distances itself from the full implications of it. He’s also a clever setter; in Fear, which uses prose by Montaigne, Keats characterises the fears of the rich and poor in dramatic fashion – the busy and stern writing for the Rich and the jaunty indifference of the writing for the Poor. Which precisely mirrors the text in a way both subtle and illuminating.

Only occasionally does Keats sink to the whimsical or generic; equally seldom does he aspire to other models – in Once I Could Sit By The Fire Hour Long there is a barely concealed Schubertian start, and layering of a ground bass that solemnly tolls. The internal fissures of the poem are conveyed through an equally dramatic musical syntax – silences and dramatic outburst before a final consolatory sense of return. But as if to show that Keats was a roisterer as much as an introvert the disc ends with Drake’s Call – Stanfordian to a T. The booklet is well laid out and designed. Texts and notes are attractive and the biographical details of Keats’ life elegantly detailed. Evocative sepia tinted photographs grace the pages. As to the performers, well they lack finesse but succeed in conveying much of Keats’ energy and sensitivity. To that extent they are, if not trail blazers (because some of his songs have been recorded before), at least what I hope will be the advance guard that brings more Keatsian delights to the listening public.

Jonathan Woolf

see previous review by Rob Barnett


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