> A Shropshire Lad [JQ]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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The complete Shropshire Lad in poem and song-settings
Samuel BARBER (1910-81): With rue my heart is laden
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-89): I liked you better. He would not stay.
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916): Bredon Hill. When the lad for longing sighs. On the idle hill of summer; A Shropshire Lad complete
Mervyn HORDER (b 1910): White in the moon.
John IRELAND (1879-1962): Hawthorn time. The hearts desire. The lent lily. Goal and wicket. The vain desire. The encounter. Epilogue.
E. J. MOERAN (1894-1950): Far in a western brookland. O fair enough are sky and plain.
C. W. ORR (1893-1976): When I watch the living meet. Hughley steeple. Into my heart. O see how thick the goldcup flowers. The Isle of Portland. This time of year.
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor); Graham Johnson (piano); Alan Bates (reader).
Rec 1980s
HYPERION DYAD CDD22044 2CD [123.39] Bargain price


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I think this reissue could be described fairly as a quintessential Hyperion release. It combines high production values, excellent liner notes including the full texts, top-flight artistry and, above all, enterprising programme planning.

The poetry of A. E. Housman (1859-1936) has been a consistent source of inspiration to composers, and most of all his collection, A Shropshire Lad, which was published in 1896. The collection comprises 63 poems and countless musical settings have been made by a wide variety of composers, although some poems have been more favoured than others (and so far as I know some may not have been set at all).

Amid the great number of recordings of musical settings of Housman this Hyperion set is unique. First issued in 1995 and now reissued on the mid-price Dyad label, these discs contain all the poems in their published order with some in musical settings and others read by Alan Bates. There are twenty-six musical settings of Shropshire Lad poems (plus two more Houseman settings, of which more later) and Bates reads 38 poems. Incidentally, at least some of the poems which are read here exist in fine musical settings; perhaps one selection criterion was the simple one of how much material could be accommodated on a well-filled pair of CDs. Thus the listener has a fascinating opportunity to absorb the complete cycle (not necessarily at one sitting, I suspect) and also to reflect on the ways in which music enhances some of Housmans words and, in certain cases, transcends them.

Alan Bates reads the poems assigned to him in a reflective, intimate style. Declamation is eschewed, and rightly so, I think. It was easy to form a mental image of Bates sitting in an armchair, reading the poems simply and conversationally (but with complete understanding). In this mental picture the singer and pianist are just a few feet away and the mental spotlight moves between singer and reader as appropriate. As you might expect, Bates is subtle, responsive and intelligent in his delivery, which he paces perfectly.

This last sentence could just apply to the singing of Anthony Rolfe Johnson. He sings easily and fluently with a lovely plangency in the upper register. Arguably he has a more difficult task than does Bates for not only must he respond to the different moods of the poems themselves, he also must adapt to the differing styles of seven composers. However, English song is very much Rolfe Johnsons metier and he switches effortlessly and seamlessly between composers. On this occasion the differences in compositional style are less marked for the listener than would be the case in a conventional song recital since not only are the songs usually interspersed with readings but also the various composers individual songs are separated from each other.

The third performer is the pianist, Graham Johnson. I dont know if this project was his idea (it has all the hallmarks of a Johnson venture) but as always he makes an enormous contribution. As so often, one feels that his playing and his perception are the bedrocks on which the whole recital has been built. He is alive to every subtle nuance of the music and illuminates countless points of detail. Consistently he supports and, indeed, challenges, his singer.

The largest number of songs here is by George Butterworth. In addition to the six songs which comprise his wonderful cycle, A Shropshire Lad, three other items are included. There are seven songs by John Ireland, two by Moeran, and six by the Cheltenham-born composer, C. W. Orr. Two composers are represented by a single song each: the American, Samuel Barber; and the British publisher and composer, Mervyn Horder. The other contributor is Lennox Berkeley. Two of his songs are included but these are not drawn from A Shropshire Lad. In his excellent notes Andrew Green points out that both of these songs were composed in the early 1940s, at the time when Berkeley was getting over the break up of his relationship with Benjamin Britten. Green explains the reason for the inclusion of these two songs. Personally, Im not wholly convinced and I would have preferred it if the focus had been maintained exclusively on A Shropshire Lad.

It seems to me that the Butterworth settings are the most consistently appealing of all the songs included here. There is an effortless lyricism to Butterworths music and the almost folk-like tenor of the music fits the poems he sets like a proverbial glove. The music is economical of means and melodically fluent but deeper currents flow beneath the surface. Rolfe Johnsons voice is ideally suited to these songs.

Andrew Green suggests that Irelands settings are actually closer to Housmans poetic intentions. Five of the songs in the present collection come from the 1921 cycle, The Land of Lost Content. Green refers perceptively to the "nut brown richness and harmonic complexities" of Irelands settings. I think this is a most apposite description. These songs do not surrender their secrets lightly at a first hearing and repay further study no hardship when performed as well as they are here.

Charles Wilfred Orr is a minor figure in twentieth century British musical history. His musical output consisted chiefly of 35 songs. The late Christopher Palmer apparently held his music in high regard and is quoted in the liner notes as regarding Orr as "one of the finest British song composers of the [twentieth] century". Im not sure that Id go quite that far but the songs included here are of considerable interest. At best (as in Into my heart an air that kills and The Isle of Portland) the music has genuine depth.

Im afraid I found the song by Mervyn Horder less interesting. Nor did the two Berkeley offerings, though as expertly crafted as one would expect from this source, exert too strong an appeal on me. Other listeners may well disagree and certainly it would seem that Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson are fully convinced by all three of these songs.

It is good to find that fastidious and lyrical composer, Samuel Barber represented here. His setting of With rue my heart is laden is an early work; one of three songs written in 1928 when he was just 18.The three songs comprised his Op. 2 and were among his first pieces to be published. This Housman setting is a short, typically intense offering and it is sung here with an ideal plangency by Rolfe Johnson.

As I indicated earlier, the comprehensive booklet essay by Andrew Green is absolutely first class. It is a model of its kind and adds significantly to ones overall pleasure. So too does the clear and realistic recorded sound. I bought this set when it first appeared and I am delighted to see it now reissued at mid-price. This is most distinguished and enterprising release which is recommended without reservation to all lovers of English song.

John Quinn

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