> Ireland, Rubbra, Quilter 4701952 [CH]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Sea Fever, The Vagabond, The Bells of San Marie (Bryn Terfel (baritone), Malcolm Martineau (pianoforte) (rec. 1995)), The Holy Boy (Stephen Ryde-Weller (treble), Nicholas Richardson (treble), Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/David Hill (rec. 1994)), A Comedy Overture (Grimethorpe Colliery Band/Elgar Howarth (rec. 1976))
Edmund RUBBRA (1901-1986)

3 Psalms (1946) (Kathleen Ferrier (contralto), Ernest Lush (pianoforte) (rec. 1953))
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)

Slumber Song (from "Where the Rainbow Ends"), Where Go the Boats (from "Child Songs, op. 5) (arranger not named) (Julian Lloyd Webber (violoncello), John Lenehan (pianoforte) (rec. 1993)), Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, op. 3/2 (Benjamin Luxon (baritone), David Willison (pianoforte) (rec. 1975)), Weep You No More, op. 12/1 (Elly Ameling (soprano), Rudolf Jansen (pianoforte) (rec. 1983)), Old English Popular Songs (arranged): Down By the Sally Gardens, Drink to Me Only, Ye Banks and Braes; Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal, op. 3/2, The Fair House of Joy, op. 12/7, To Daisies, op. 8/3 (Kathleen Ferrier ( contralto), Phyllis Spurr (pianoforte), (rec. 1951)), Love’s Philosophy (Jennifer Vyvyan (soprano), Ernest Lush (pianoforte) (rec. ?), Over the Mountains (Kathleen Ferrier (contralto), Phyllis Spurr (pianoforte) (rec. 1951))
Locations not given, dates as above
DECCA 470 195-2 [61.28] midprice

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This comes in Decca’s British Music Collection and rather reflects the fact that this company’s contribution to British music, though containing items of very great importance (quite apart from their loyalty to Benjamin Britten throughout his career) has been somewhat sporadic, and has tended to reflect the interests of the artists of their stable rather than any systematic exploration. This grouping of recordings made over a period of 44 years of three composers with nothing but their British passports in common – a Stanford pupil (Ireland), a member of the "Frankfurt Gang" that rebelled against Stanford and all his works (Quilter) and, in Rubbra, a representative of the next generation who studied with a Stanford pupil (Holst) and another Frankfurter (Scott) but whose spiritual links with Ireland and Quilter are pretty well non-existent – has all the appearance of barrel-scraping, of bunging together what happened to be available. Nonetheless, the programme is attractive in its heterogeneous way and gives rise to a number of reflections.

From Ireland we get his two best-known pieces, but what about having at least one of his best? The Terfel performances are, alas, little more than a chapter of exaggerations. In Sea Fever he spurts ahead impetuously and then grinds to an absolute halt with an oh-so-long pause before the last line of each stanza that seems to say "Just listen to me, how artistic I am!". Today’s generation seems to find it hard to maintain the sense of proportion that came naturally to an earlier one. The youthful John Shirley-Quick, in his Saga LP, was fairly free with the tempi, but somehow his boat kept moving forward. A pity, since voice for voice they are equally fine. Most moving of all, in his noble simplicity, is Paul Robeson (ASV CD AJS 244), whom I reviewed recently. The Bells of San Marie is too gusty to portray the lazy Sunday morning in port.

The Holy Boy was originally a piano piece, with "official" arrangements for organ and for string orchestra and maybe others, too. It was Herbert Brown who had the idea of putting words to it, presumably with Ireland’s approval, though since Brown was the family solicitor maybe it was better not to argue. Criticism is dispelled by the quite gorgeous singing of the two boys and this is one of the high points of the disc.

No complaints about the Grimethorpe Band’s brilliant interpretation of the Comedy Overture under Elgar Howarth, but what a piece to represent Ireland by! This was the original from which he later made the London Overture and tends to show that he had from the first a type of expression in his mind which just doesn’t go on a brass band. Not the performers’ fault, but the orchestral piece is so much more effective.

The Rubbra is a historic document, since these settings were dedicated to Ferrier and first performed by her in 1949. They fit uneasily into the fairly easy listening context of the rest, but truth to tell I don’t think they quite amount to a great low-voice religious cycle to put alongside the Brahms 4 Serious Songs, the Wolf Michelangelo Lieder or the Stanford Songs of Faith (yes, I mean that!). There is a certain hard-won joy to the last which is impressive, but the furrow-browed response to "The Lord is My Shepherd" is hard to take and this is not the sort of context where Rubbra’s famed sense of symphonic growth has time to unfold. Ferrier’s voice – still sounding remarkably well across half a century – could make a Biblical phrase sound impressive no matter what notes it was sung to, yet even here a few home truths need saying.

In many ways the legend of Kathleen Ferrier’s greatness has not been and could not be exaggerated. It is a testimony to the radiance of her personality that those of a generation old enough to have heard her live – both my parents for example – speak of her, fifty years on, as still a living presence, so firmly had she lodged herself in their hearts. Add to this the tragedy of an illness bravely borne and her early death and she was undoubtedly one of those rare mortals who brought light into the world. But legends, along with their immortal side, are also tied to their own period. Immortal, I would say, is her Mahler with Bruno Walter and her Brahms 4 Serious Songs. And much else. Unquenchable is the sheer steadiness of her delivery. Ironically, it is when she sings in English that we have to face the fact that she sang for another age. English pronunciation has changed over the years, as we know if we listen to news broadcasts from the war years, "golden-oldie" films, or other documentary footage. The very clarity of Ferrier’s diction only means that today’s generations will have to listen through a certain schoolmarmishness in order to get to the kernel of the message. It often shows in the smallest details. Today we teach that you don’t pronounce the "r" at the end of words like "care" (but was it ever pronounced in speech?). Here it comes, conspicuously rolled at the end of the "sae fu’ o’ care" line in "Ye Banks and Braes". Perhaps it seemed natural in its day, now it draws attention to itself.

In another respect, Ferrier is less dated, for there used to be a specifically "English" way of singing English songs. You can hear it in Jennifer Vyvyan’s rendering of "Love’s Philosophy". The problem is not so much the very straight, schoolgirlish timbre, the "pure white, or Nymphs and Shepherds style", as Anna Russell called it, as the way each syllable speaks for itself, with no legato line. It sounds like a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song and, in this context, it appears only provincial and rather ridiculous. Ferrier quite frankly sings "Over the Mountains" in much the same way, but elsewhere she shows that she was turning towards a more European style of delivery, with a true bel canto legato. Her "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal" is less sticky than Luxon’s lugubrious (but finely sung) version and it would be interesting to learn whether her textual variation at the end came from someone "in the know". However, the performance here which shows that Quilter fully deserves a place in the repertoire of European singers in the 21st Century is that by the Dutch soprano Elly Ameling. With a beautifully spun legato line and an innate musicality of phrasing, with the words just dropped into it, every one clear yet never breaking the line, this is one of the finest performances of an English song I know. And to think that, if the British had pushed their wares a little more, as the French habitually do, and had pestered Miss Ameling, maybe she would have sung a whole lot more.

The two cello items (arranged by Julian Lloyd Webber himself?) are agreeable trinkets.

I don’t really know what sort of recommendation this amounts too and I’m jolly glad we don’t award stars any more! Certainly the disc offers food for thought and some precious items. We get a short but helpful note from Kenneth Chalmers, in English only, and no texts, so presumably a predominantly British public is aimed at. Some of the music deserves more.

Christopher Howell

See also review by Jonathan Woolf


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