> Carey Blyton The Early Songs [GH]: Classical Reviews- January 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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The Early Songs

Three a.m. Op. 9; Two Pensive Songs Op. 10; Toi et Moi Op. 11;
Moresques Op. 14; Symphony in Yellow Op. 15; The Poetry of Dress Op. 25
What then is Love? Op. 26; The Sea Dog’s Song Op. 28;
Prayers from the Ark Op. 48; The Flea Op. 100½;
The Rose and the Nightingale by Rimsky-Korsakov arr. Blyton;
Indigo Blues Op. 103½

Beryl Korman, soprano; Ian Partridge, tenor; Stephen Roberts, piano; Jennifer Partridge, piano; David Campbell, clarinet and "Scheherazade".
Recorded at Snape, Maltings November 2000
UPBEAT URCD 160 [79.23]

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This is the sixth CD of Carey Blyton’s music since the saxophone disc ‘The Return of Bulgy Go-Go’ in 1991 (URCD 106) and the second to be devoted to the composer’s vocal works; the other being ‘The Folk Song Arrangements’ (URCD 131).

As can be seen from the opus numbers these are not entirely early songs but, for the sake of completeness, the composer has slipped in two fairly recent miniatures. ‘The Flea’, (1992) is a work of great profundity and power setting the immortal words "Adam ‘ad 'em" prefaced by a Beethovenian display for the piano! Indigo Blues (1999) is a colonial song with a strong political content.

But to start at the beginning.

The CD booklet has a photograph of five young men with the caption ‘The Beckenham Salon’. This was not an upmarket coiffeur in South-East London although certainly these gents are beautifully turned out, but a group of like-minded young artists who in the early '50s created for opportunities for performance and presentation of their work. This was under the avuncular eye of Sir Arthur Bliss. One of these is the poet David Munro whose evocative poems Blyton regularly set at this time; another is a dapper Carey Blyton himself.

The opus 9 songs ‘Three A.M’., were first performed at Beckenham Grammar School (where Blyton was educated) in October 1951. That means that Blyton was at the time a mere stripling of 19. What is remarkable is that he had only started composing three years earlier having, I believe, been the music master’s nightmare pupil and hating the subject. This was before a convalescence from polio that gave him time to discover his latent musical talent. It’s also interesting that his style is already in place - an ability to capture the tension, which is ironically rather laid-back and disguised to underline the meaning of the words. The urban world is beautifully evoked with a sense of sleazy decorum and run-down sophistication. Speaking in oxymorons is, I feel, appropriate also for his second cycle of songs Op. 10. Here one of Blyton’s own poems ‘Two Stolen Roses’ is paired with Donald Hills’ poem ‘Come Night’. The music’s gentle ease covers the darkness of the lines "Shut out this light, Wherein hard, bitter life I alone I see"

I have always thought that Poulenc was an influence on Blyton’s early style and this is strongly brought home to me in ‘Toi et Moi’ op. 11 his longest song-cycle up to that point. It comprises five settings of Paul Geraldy out of a published group of 32. Not all English composers would tackle French texts, but to do them at aged 20 shows remarkable confidence and skill. The point should be made here that in music that appears artless there is more often than not a real consummate skill, and economy of means, not a note wasted, the ‘Art which conceals Art’. These traits can be found in this wonderful cycle, coupled with a real sense and understanding of melody. Poulenc surely was a model for the lively ‘Post scriptum’ movement 3. It is a pity that the otherwise excellent booklet notes do not translate the texts as the score does, as the word painting in this song is particularly subtle.

The two cycles, which stand out for me, are ‘Moresques’ and ‘Prayers from the Ark’. The former is scored for soprano, flute, harp and piano and is a setting of three Spanish-inspired poems by the aforementioned David Munro. Again Blyton was only 20 when it was first performed in Beckenham. It shows remarkable skill in combining the unusual combination of instruments particularly in the harp writing which mixes superbly with the piano. I wonder who taught the composer how to write so idiomatically for the harp. The performance is by the delightful ‘Scheherazade’, Verona Chard, soprano, Denise Dance, flute, and Fiona Clifton-Welker, harp. It is particularly apt, with their name, that in 1995 Blyton should have arranged Rimsky’s early song, the delicious ‘The Rose and the Nightingale’ from his opera ‘Sadko’. They also perform the less memorable ‘Symphony in Yellow’ with words by Oscar Wilde.

Carey Blyton’s choice of texts is quite distinctly his own, picked I suspect to suit the soundworld he naturally inhabits. Very successful from this point of view is ‘Prayers from the Ark’, seven animal poems by Carmen Bernos de Gasztold (where did the composer find this poet?) written in 1974 and first performed by Jane Manning. Each ends with a characteristic ‘A-men’. The last, ‘The Lark’, for example ambles up to a top F and then floats it. Earlier the bored old Ox sings it on just two notes.

Carey Blyton’s interest in Elizabethan music and poetry is characteristic of English composers brought up at this time. The two short cycles 'The Poetry of Dress’, with words by Herrick, and ‘What then is Love’, with words by several poets including Shakespeare and John Donne, are good examples. The setting of ‘A sweet disorder in the dress’ displays typical Phrygian cadences and some false relations. Both cycles are worthy but the melodic material is more memorable I feel in other works on the CD.

The composer pulled off a considerable coup with obtaining the services of Ian and Jennifer Partridge who are obviously enjoying themselves hugely. I can remember Ian Partridge floating his beautiful tenor in the late 60s in early music with ‘The Purcell Consort’, then with his sister in some memorable Schumann performances; it’s good to hear him revelling in this repertoire. Praise also is due for the effortlessly beautiful voice of Beryl Korman who occasionally pinches some of the top notes but who has immaculate diction and perfect phrasing. Stephen Roberts is a fine and well-known performer in all areas and is ideal in 'Toi et Moi’ which lies superbly on his voice.

There are full texts supplied in the 28-page booklet, curiously with the exception of ‘The Sea-dog’s Song’ where Stephen Roberts’ words are less clear than on the rest of the recording.

I am only sorry that the mysterious Mary Q. Palimpsest has had to stand down as the writer of the booklet notes and we are left with tedious old Anon.

Gary Higginson

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