Percy Turnbull was born in 1902 in Newcastle, training
as a chorister in the Cathedral church there and following an arts education
in the Armstrong College of Art, the fruits of which can be gauged from
the quality of the fine watercolour landscape on the sleeve of this
particular CD. He became friendly with the influential W. Gillies Whittaker
and in 1922 gained a scholarship to the Royal College to study music.
This slight information is gleaned from the accompanying
booklet, since beyond that I know nothing, other than a modest Pasticcio
for piano, of what soon appears to be a shamefully neglected composer.
Having now come across this disc of his songs, all early works from
his twenties, I must ask why it is that songsters such as Haydn Wood
and Montague Phillips et al are popular when someone like the
Percy Turnbull of these songs, who died in 1976, languishes in the dark?
His melodies are equally attractive - I'd even say 'catchy'?
Listening to the very first track of this disc I might
easily be tempted to pigeonhole his music amongst the ranks of the art-songsters
of the early 20th Century, whose work, delightfully unpretentious, was
enjoyed in the family circle in evenings around the piano. I might.
'Chloris in the Snow' is a beautiful little song recalling
Somervell and Parry - even Sullivan - as do also his settings of 'My
bed is a Boat' and 'The Moon'. But then I realised that, listening,
I was concentrating on the melody and only subconsciously registering
what the piano was doing. listening further to 'To Julia', 'When Daffodils
begin to peer' and 'The Cavalier', I began to appreciate the artistry
of these songs and the fact that their immediate melodic appeal is cleverly
enhanced by the craftsmanship of the settings. Listen to the treatment,
in the first song, of the phrase 'for grief is thawed into a dew' -
and in 'To Julia' to the coquettish figuration, which lifts this little
vignette into a character portrait of rare individuality. These songs
are full of such felicities. Dark moments are few ('To God' is an exception)
although there is a Beethovenian grandeur in his Hardy (‘The Reminder')
and this, and the Schumannesque 'Guess, Guess' show the fruit of his
classical piano tuition under Oppenheimer. With each song the lineage
becomes more and more apparent without ever detracting from their individuality.
In his 'Cavalier' (Masefield) it is no surprise to learn that at the
RCM he studied with John Ireland, and with Vaughan Williams
The melody lines, essentially simple, nevertheless
take some lovely turns and if the tune of 'If Doughty Deeds' could easily
have been written in the time of Sullivan the piano part is pure Turnbull.
The composer is well served by each of the soloists and by the fine,
sensitive playing of the pianist Robin Bowman.
The recording, which also includes seven partsongs
sung by the appropriately named Joyful Company of Singers under Peter
Broadbent, is sponsored by the Turnbull Memorial Trust - and it is to
be hoped that a further exploration of Turnbull's work can be facilitated.
I for one would be most interested in his chamber music.