"I will go with my father a-ploughing," writes
the poet Joseph Campbell in the first song on this disc, "to the
green field by the sea. And the rooks and the crows and the seagulls/Will
come flocking after me." In his musical setting it is the word
"flocking" that John Jeffreys chooses to bring out, giving
to this word both the highest note of the phrase and a certain snap
in the rhythm. Each of the poem’s three verses follows a similar form,
and so it is in the music, with substantially the same melody each time.
In his setting of the same poem, Ivor Gurney prefers to bring out the
word "seagulls", and as far as the first verse is concerned
there seems to be little to choose between the two approaches. But in
the third verse it’s "the geese and the crows and the children"
who "come flocking" and thus it is the children who are accentuated
in Gurney’s third verse. And from this point on, in Gurney’s setting,
the music takes a different turn, having followed a strophic formula
similar to Jeffreys’ up to now. First of all there is a beguiling change
of key, after which the music is completely reworked to bring the song
to an exultant close about the words "…joys for the harvest done."
Jeffreys closes his song with exactly the same music as in the earlier
verses, with only the piano accompaniment receiving any variation. The
melody Gurney conjures up to clothe these words is almost improvisatory
in nature, with a wonderful rhythmic freedom and no discernable accent
pattern, apart from that dictated by the words themselves, to disrupt
the flow of the poet’s phrases. Jeffreys’ melody, on the other hand,
despite its gentle three in a bar time, seems four-square and lumpy
by comparison, and its regular accents – "I will go with
my father a-ploughing to the green field by
the sea" – supported by the piano accompaniment make for
music which quite simply never takes wing in the way Gurney’s so memorably
does. It is no doubt unkind to compare Jeffrey’s song to a masterpiece,
for a masterpiece Gurney’s song most certainly is, in as much as he
takes a relatively simple poem and puts with it music which is not only
of exquisite beauty in itself, but which enhances the poem, bringing
out and even supplementing its meaning with nuances which are not to
be found in the written text alone.
If you don’t know the Ivor Gurney song you’ll find
it on Ian Bostridge’s EMI recital entitled The English Songbook,
but also on Janet Baker’s very first recorded recital which is called
An Anthology of English Song. This was recorded by Saga in the
1960s and has been available on CD. It’s a glorious disc that should
never be out of the catalogue. She also treats us to Warlock’s jolly
setting of In Youth is Pleasure, very different from Jeffreys’
on the current disc. Indeed, there is no shortage of opportunities to
compare Jeffreys with other song composers, whether it be with Vaughan
Williams in I will make you brooches or with Britten in A
lyke wake dirge. And although taken on their own terms many of these
songs are enjoyable enough, the sad fact is that in every case where
a comparison is possible the better known composer is more successful.
Jeffreys relies too frequently on a formula whereby the vocal line remains
more or less unchanged from one verse to the next, whereas the accompaniment
is subjected to considerable variation of harmony and texture which
is not always, so it seems to me, prompted by the text. All too frequently
his piano introductions are made up of the opening phrase or phrases
of the vocal line, creating the uncomfortable effect in the listener
of being able to sing along with the first couple of lines of a song
you’ve never heard before, as well as bringing back not altogether welcome
memories of ‘Singing Together’ sessions at school.
Too often one feels short-changed by music which presents
a generalised response to a given text but without very much that is
really musically interesting. Thus there is little apart from the accompanying
piano chords that is "rich and strange" in Full Fathom
Five, and the bells toll at the end but don’t communicate what the
composer hears in them. His treatment of Graves’ Six Badgers
produces a result which could have been whimsical and amusing but here
seems simply silly. Two rather bleaker songs, Horror follows horror,
to a text by Ivor Gurney, and The Reaper seem at first more promising,
but though the piano writing well conveys the character of the poems,
the vocal line is sadly undistinguished and uninteresting. Even if judged
by the highest standards many of these songs hang fire, many of the
others will give simple pleasure nonetheless. The second song on the
disc, Brown is my Love, for example, or Jeffreys’ settings of
The Salley Gardens or Burns’ The Farewell are like this:
simple, affecting; serious of intent and possessed of great integrity;
but without much musical distinction.
The performances, on the other hand, are outstanding.
Jonathan Veira’s is a baritone voice of great beauty throughout its
range, the tone only occasionally hardening a little in louder passages.
Intonation and diction are impeccable, and he sings with great intelligence
and a fine feeling for the words. He also sings these songs as though
he totally believes in them, and his accompanist, Shelley Katz brings
the same conviction to every note he plays.
Somm’s production values are well up to the usual standards
of the house, though they might have run to a new photograph of the
composer to replace the ill-focused snap reproduced here.
I urge lovers of English song to investigate this issue
in the hope that they react to these songs in the way the performers
clearly do, in which case they will certainly get more out of it than