> Richard STOKER - Vocal Music: Solos, Duos, Folk Song Arrangements, Realisations [JF]: Classical CD Reviews- Sept 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Richard STOKER (1938-)
Vocal Music: Solos, Duos, Folk Song Arrangements, Realisations.

Songs of Love and Loss Op.19 (1952-1957)
Two Arias from Johnson Preserv'd Op.30 (1966/67)
Canticle 2 Make me a Willow Cabin Op.44 (1972/73)
Aspects of Flight Op.48 (1974)
Two Vocal Duos: Requiescat Op.20 and Glory of the Dove Op.41 (1969/1976)
Folk song Arrangements Op. 39b (1968-1988)
Two Realisations Op.78/79 (??) (Op78 Lullaby, Byrd; Op79 When I am laid in earth, Purcell)
Margaret Feaviour, soprano; Jacqueline Fox, mezzo soprano; Richard Stoker, piano
Recorded at Elite CD Studios, Bromley, Kent c2000
ASC Classical Series CS CD17 [CD1: 49.25; CD2: 36.04]



For a brief account of the life and work of Richard Stoker I refer the reader to my review for his Piano Music on Priory PRCD 659. I must thank Richard for some additional information on these recorded works.

In a previous review of music by the Yorkshire composer Richard Stoker, I expressed the opinion that it is difficult to listen to a whole CD of songs composed using serialism. This present CD is another case in point although only about half of the works claim a serial derivation. It is necessary to take this CD in small doses. It is not helpful to the listener's interest or the composer's intention to through-listen.

Here we have a selection of early songs, vocal works for solo and duet, folk song arrangements and some realisations of music by Purcell and Byrd. There are two arias from the composer's opera Johnson Preserv'd.

Taken as a whole, this double CD is a good, well thought out selection of Stoker's music. It is well balanced between old and new, serial and non-serial compositions. However, I noticed on my copy that there were a number of crackles and pops presumably caused by 'who knows what' on the CD's surface. Some of the singing comes over as forced and lacking in depth and even power: I feel this may be the recording rather than the ability of the singers. However, Margaret Feaviour's voice may be a little weak for some of the 'high' passages that Stoker requires her to sing. The piano accompaniment is always good, even if it occasionally sounds as if it were recorded in the 'little room.'

Once again it would have been very useful to have the words for the settings - although I understand that there may well be some copyright issues.

The CDs are not really chock full of music, at 50 minutes and 36 minutes; definitely a 'could do better' on the quantity front.

My thanks are due to Richard Stoker for additional information used in this review and for suggesting a number of corrections.

Songs of Love & Loss Op.19

These are early songs, written when the composer was a teenager. Yet in many ways they are five classic examples of English Song writing. The earliest work was composed in 1952 - Stoker was thirteen at the time. Yet this setting of Thomas Dekker's Lullaby, Golden Slumber is perhaps the best of the set. It is certainly beautifully sung by Margaret Feaviour. The young composer has managed to create a good combination of vocal line and piano accompaniment.

It is all too easy to look for influences in the work of a schoolboy - no matter how competent it seems. This is natural, but perhaps unfortunate. Although the second song, 'When I Consider' by Shakespeare, has overtones of Benjamin Britten, it is still a remarkable achievement. Unfortunately my copy of this CD has a number of 'blips and pops' at this point.

'Tell me, my Lute' by Sheridan may well be the minor masterpiece of this group. It is well balanced and interesting. The D.H Lawrence setting is possibly the most profound of the set - and once again perhaps the recording lets this number down. Ms Feaviour has a pure voice, indeed, but it appears to lack strength in the higher registers. Perhaps it is the recording to blame rather than her technique?

The last song of the cycle was written by Emily Brontë: Fall Leaves, Fall. There is a slight swing to the accompaniment. It is altogether rather good.

Two Arias from Johnson Preserv'd Op30

I must admit that based on these two selections from Stoker's opera Johnson Preserv'd I would not be inclined to sit through all three acts. These two arias seem to be serially derived, even if there appears to be a degree of 'free' manipulation of melody and harmony. In fact I suspect that it is not quite as serial as it is meant to sound! It was composed between 1966 and 1967 to a libretto by Jill Watt. It was first performed in London in 1967, with Philip Langridge playing one of the leads. In spite of the serial technique employed there are some 'pop' elements in here - perhaps even hints of Gershwin. As examples of this type of music they succeed well. However it is difficult to imagine a whole opera in this vein.

Canticle 2:Make me a willow cabin Op 44.

This is a well crafted setting of the 'veil' scene from Act I scene V of Twelfth Night. The two singers take the parts of Olivia and Viola. There is no doubt that this is a well-composed and well-thought-out piece of music. But how successful is it? How well will it be remembered? The sonorities feel a little dated and the impression is given of a work that was an ephemeral piece of music written for a particular commission - in this case the Gemini Ensemble. It is interesting to have it recorded here - but I for one find no desire to hear the work again. It is very much a child of its time.

Aspects of Flight. Op.48

This is an excellent song cycle - unique, original and fun! It was commissioned by the Redcliffe Concerts for a South Bank concert in 1974. Once again the words were written by Jill Watt. It is a collection of eight short 'songs' - really describing a 'flight' in an aircraft. All sorts of verbal images are chucked around - for example the tannoy announces planes bound for 'Athens, Rome and Tehran’. There are descriptions of passengers - both seasoned and nervous. Business men are reading 'The Times, the business section…with interchangeable bowler hats.' Some have '…seen it all before…' and have an attitude of 'disdain for nervous passengers.' The poem entitled ‘Storm’ is flexibly scored - only suggested rhythm and pitch are notated. The singer muses on the return to her own country and the work closes with an epilogue - referring poetically and musically back to the opening bars. This is a well-sung piece, full of invention and deserves to be fairly and squarely in the standard repertoire. Pity it is not.

Two Vocal Duos. Op.20 and Op.41

I must confess I did not enjoy these two works. However, that is not to criticise them. I can see that they are fine examples of vocal writing from the late 1960s. It is just that I find them too intense. The musical content is impressive. Stoker is able to use a variety of musical devices to obtain just the correct effect. The first, a setting of 'Requiescat' by the poet Matthew Arnold is effectively two voices in canon, supported by piano accompaniment. It was written in 1969. The second piece is an a cappella setting of 'The Glory of the Dove'. This is a poem about peace and was written by the composer. Once again he combines a number of his talents to produce a complete work of art. The poem was written in 1968 and was set to music some eight years later.

Folk Song Arrangements Op.39b.

These are perhaps the loveliest settings on this double CD. Here is a wonderful combination of words and music; of vocal line and accompaniment. Here is innocence and simplicity of setting, but also a delicious subtlety deriving from the composer's expertise at setting words. These are mostly well known songs, and this familiarity can cause a composer problems. In many cases we will have sung these songs since primary school and therefore have strong views as to how they should sound. It is a brave composer, perhaps, who chooses to provide another version. But these are not for community singing: Stoker has raised these standard works into a pure art form. We have here English Lieder of a similar standard to Britten's and Vaughan Williams' folksong realisations. The settings add considerably to the value of the originals. And that is a huge compliment.

Here we have The Oak and the Ash; Bobby Shaftoe and Early One Morning - old favourites. But also The Keys of Canterbury, which I have never heard before and The Noble Duke of York, of which I only know the first verse. It is to the composer's credit that he has set all the verses. My favourite is Bobby Shaftoe - perhaps it is because I recall my late father singing it to me in a less stylised setting when I was a child.

These songs were originally composed over a period of twenty years - the first being completed in 1968 and the last being penned in 1988. They were first heard as a set at Leighton House in 1998. There also exists a version of them for voice and guitar (published by Doblinger).

Two Realisations Op.78 and Op.79

Stoker's two realisations are in the same vein as those by Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett. The first is a delicious arrangement of William Byrd's Lullaby, My Sweet Little Baby. Originally this was composed as a five part choral setting dating from 1588. This 'realisation' is stunning in its achievement of a combination of old and new. The Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas is equally stunning in its re-presentation of familiar material. Both of these works reveal clearly the great continuity that exists between 16th century English music and the present. A fine way to close a good recital.

This is an excellent and varied collection of music by one of Britain's better composers. Yet Stoker remains relatively unknown to the majority of listeners. This is a pity, because he has composed a wide variety of basically listenable music. This recording gives a selection of vocal music. All of it is well wrought, some of the songs are 'minor masterpieces.' There is a certain process of 'dating' taking place in this music. Perhaps as we move further from the years of serialism we shall be able to appreciate this style of composition better than we do at present. Yet Stoker has the ability to write music using a number of constructional techniques. His music, although belonging to a certain period and style in musical history is often able to transcend this style and will prove to be durable in the future.

John France

Review of Volume 2

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