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
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
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
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.
of Volume 2