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
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
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
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
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.