> Horace Keats songs [RB] : Classical CD Reviews- July2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Horace KEATS (1895-1945)

Yellow Bracken (1937) (John Cowper Powys)*
In what other places do you live (1941) (Russell Henderson) *
Love's Secret (1934) (William Blake) *
The Orange Tree (1938) (John Shaw Neilson)*
Sea-Wraith (1939) (J J Donnelly) +
Galleons (1937) (Kenneth Mackenzie) +
We sat entwined (1936) (Christopher J Brennan) *
Sun after rain (1941) (Hugh McCrae) *
Am I shut out of mine own heart (1937) (Brennan) *
White Heather (1943) (Edith Sterling Levis) *
Of old, on her terrace at evening (1945) (Brennan) +
The Trespass (1940) (Hugh McCrae) +
Echo (1936) (Christina Rossetti) * **
Columbine (1940) (Hugh McCrae) *
The point of noon (1936) (Brennan) *
Moonlit apples (1940) (John Drinkwater) *
Spring breezes (1939) (Brennan) *
Fear (1935) (Michel Montaigne) +
Heaven Haven (1937) (Gerard Manley Hopkins) *
Versicle (1940) (McCrae) +
Over the quiet waters (1943?) (Herbert Brandon) *
Goldfish (1935) (Kenneth Mackenzie) +
Plucking the rushes (1935?) (anon Chinese) *
The fishing pools (1934) (Mackenzie) +
Once I could sit by the fire hour long (1943) (Brennan) *
The Roads beside the sea (1942) (Brandon) +
Drake's call (1943) (Brandon) +

Wendy Dixon (sop) *
John Pringle (bar) +
Martina Marsden (violin) **
David Miller (piano)
rec 11-15 Dec 2000, ABC's Eugene Goossens Hall, Ultimo, Sydney, Australia, DDD
ABC CLASSICS 472 225-2 [78.27]

One way and another I have been listening to a great deal of English song, or more accurately settings of poetry in English, over the last six months. There has been John Williamson's A.E. Housman settings, Margaret Wegener's songs, both on small British labels, Butterworth, Warlock and Finzi (Decca's British Music Collection) and Benjamin Burrows in a very recent British Music Society collection on the Ensemble label. Now along comes a fascinating addition from an unexpected source.

Horace Keats was born in London and having left home at the age of 16 earned a living as pianist aboard the great transatlantic liners. There he met the diseuse Nella Webb. On a tour to Australia with Miss Webb he met and was persuaded to stay by two of the great singers of the day, Peter Dawson and Ella Caspers. He worked extensively in the Australian theatre and cinema world and soon moved into broadcasting. He died just a year before Granville Bantock (his elder by twenty-seven years) a composer whose songs many of Keats's resemble.

The present collection of songs are from the 1930s and 1940s written in the last decade of Keats' life. They are not drawing room ballads. They also stand clear of the type churned out by Stanford - with two exceptions. The first is Drake's Call - clearly written with Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet in the sights. It was perhaps a song written with Dawson in the memory. White Heather is an exercise in Celtic shamrockery written to suit John McCormack though sung by a woman. This is more Bax than Stanford.

On the other hand the songs are not impressionistic - or not very impressionistic. The Point of Noon and Moonlit Apples which is as dewily luxuriant as the buzzing unDelian summer evoked by Havergal Brian in his Fifth Symphony The Wine of Summer. They stand well away from the alienation of the Second Viennese clique. Had Keats gone down that avenue he might have experienced less of an occlusion during the period from 1950 to 1990. Lauris Elms recorded an LP of Keats's songs in 1972 but apart from that and the Keats chapter of various Australian singing competitions this music has slept deeply.

What we have is a composer who is in his element in the late romantic field. He can embrace sentimentality without embarrassment as in The Roads Beside the Sea (recorded in the 1940s by Harold Williams) which reeks agreeably of Montague Phillips and Haydn Wood. Keats is far more straightforward than Othmar Schoeck. Less oblique than Bernard van Dieren but more populist than most Warlock. Imagine a cross between the sultry warmth of Bantock, the Humbert Wolfe songs of Gustav Holst, the songs of Hahn and of Finzi and Ireland in their occasional balladeer style.

Yellow Bracken, taken from the massive novel, Wolf Solent, vigorously sets John Cowper Powys, that Celt-mystic and Wessex aspirant-successor to Hardy. Love's Secret is turbulently romantic - operatically so - recalling the terrible outcome of Tess's admission to Angel in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. In Sea-Wraith the words "and he who looks must look again" vibrates with the Housman spirit of that master lyric musician C.W. Orr. The Trespass is gestural and strongly shaped by knowledge of Rachmaninov's piano style. It glories in love as much as Vaughan Williams and Gurney glory in the ploughing teams and the turning furrow. Bantock (Sappho) and Holst (Rig Veda songs) are reflected in Over the Quiet Waters, the song Keats dedicated to his son Russell killed in action in 1942 while serving on board HMAS Canberra. The Mackenzie songs Goldfish, Plucking the Rushes and Fishing pick up on Mackenzie's and Keats' joint interest in the Chinese style also reflected in the songs of Peggy Glanville-Hicks and more familiarly in the Li Tai Po settings of Arthur Bliss and Constant Lambert. In several songs Keats is uncannily predictive of Alan Hovhaness in the stratospheric altissimo of the songs he wrote and adapted for his wife Hinako Fujihara. This is not the only pre-echo. The Drinkwater song Moonlit Apples seems like a style-sketch for Barber's Knoxville (lovingly recorded many years ago on a Unicorn LP by Australian soprano Molly McGurk).

Neither soloist is ideal. Both can be tremulous of voice especially in Keats' many high long held notes (try the joyous Spring Breezes) though in intelligence both more than pass muster. Each sings with response to the meaning of the words. A good example is Dixon's intonational delineation of the parenthetic aside 'how long I know not' in We Sat Entwined - which reaches out towards the title song in Finzi's Till Earth Outwears. Speaking of Finzi, Sun after rain recalls his At a Lunar Eclipse and Channel Firing.

There are some treasurable songs here including the Hopkins setting of the famous words "I have decided to go where springs not fail" in Heaven Haven.

A lovely rather old-fashioned collection topped off by a highly detailed and consummately well designed English-only booklet running to 32 pages.

Rob Barnett



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