> Clara Butt. A Critical Survey Volume 1. The Acoustic Years [JW]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Clara Butt. A Critical Survey Volume 1. The Acoustic Years.
Georg Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759)

Lusinghe piu care (Alesandro)
Rend’il sereno al ciglio (Sosarme)
Ombra mai fu (Serse)
Christoph Willibald GLUCK (1714-1787)

Che faro (Orfeo)
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)

Il segreto (Lucrezia Borgia)
O mio Fernando (La Favorita)
Charles GOUNOD (1818-1893)

When all was young (Faust)
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Mon Coeur s’ouvre à ta voix (Samson et Dalila)
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)

O don fatale (Don Carlos)
Giuseppe GIORDANI (c1753-1798)

Caro mio ben
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

In questa tomba oscura

Ama nesciri
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)

En prière
Maud Valerie WHITE (1855-1937)

A youth once loved a maiden
The tears that night
Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)

A hymn for aviators
Sigurd LIE (1871-1904)

Soft-footed snow
John Pike HULLAH (1812-1884)

Three fishers went sailing

Women of Inver
Edward GERMAN (1862-1936)

Have you news of my boy Jack?
Liza LEHMANN (1862-1918)

The birth of flowers
Lucy BROADWOOD (1858-1929)

The keys of heaven
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)

The Dream of Gerontius – selections
Where corals lie (Sea Pictures)


My treasure
Herbert BREWER (1865-1928)
The fairy pipers
John L HATTON (1809-1886)

The enchantress
Arthur SULLIVAN (1842-1900)

Will he come?
Teresa Clothilde Del RIEGO (1876-1968)

My son
Cécile CHAMINADE (1857-1944)

The little silver ring
Franco LEONI (1864-1938/1949?)

The leaves and the wind
Cuthbert HAWLEY

The sweetest flower that blows
Arthur GORING THOMAS (1850-1892)

A summer night

Barbara Allen
The Lover’s Curse arr Hughes
I know my love arr Hughes
Ye banks and braes
Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn
Wilfred SANDERSON (1878-1935)

My dear soul
Frederick CROUCH (1808-1896)

Kathleen Mavourneen

Peace and rest
Frederic COWEN (1852-1935)

The promise of life

Abide with me
Clara Butt, contralto with piano and various accompaniments; Orchestra conducted by Henry Wood except Beethoven (Hamilton Harty) and German (Thomas Beecham)
Recorded 1909-1925
MARSTON 52029-2 [2 CDs 79.30 and 79.18]




Clara Butt’s discography in the Record Collector runs to some twenty-nine pages – including many rejected and unpublished titles amongst which are songs by Brahms, Schubert, Hahn and Rachmaninov. Her recordings were staples of the British and Imperial catalogue and the discs in volume one of Marston’s survey run from the HMVs of 1909 to the late acoustic Columbias of July 1925. The excellent sleeve-note writer Michael Aspinall has divided the selection thematically – Handel, Opera – not mutually exclusive but one gets the point – Classical song, the cruel sea, Victorian ballads of sentiment and so on. This means that the selection does not run chronologically and nor is it afraid to delve back and forth, spanning the acoustic years with vivid sweep and real verve.

Butt’s contralto voice is still a contentious one principally but not exclusively for the question of registral breaks when she overused her chest register by pushing it too high. This, coupled with a perceived stentorian or sententious delivery in lighter songs, sometimes lent her singing a somewhat portentous quality, which were exacerbated by what have been called her "baritonal effects." This is the Clara Butt whose memory has been solidified as the Matronly Conscience of the Empire. With the occasional vices, however, and they can’t easily be denied, come a still remarkable array of musical gifts. One of the most astounding is her sense of narrative, which manifests itself in oratorio, song or ballad as a compelling control of line; supporting this comes a control of legato, dynamic variance, a remarkable compass, the ability occasionally to spin and float an elfin and soft tone – her flexibility in this respect refutes the received image of her battleship reputation. The increasingly obvious frailties of voice breaks manifested themselves rather later than these acoustics so whilst there are moments of over robust exaggeration or indulgence the majority of these varied pieces show her in her finest form.

The Handel records that begin the discs are excellent examples of Butt’s occasional floridities and exploitation of chest register. They also demonstrate that she had a real coloratura in which respect the aria from Alessandro is absolutely outstanding. No registral problems hamper her, the divisions are even, the enunciation is clear even if her Italian is imperfect, and the aria utterly alive. The aria from Sosarme shows what has been called her "portamento style" complete with a splendid ear for variance of dynamics. Yes there can be misgivings; the Gluck, cello rich and moving though it is, does reveal those little moments of phrase ending fluttery vibrato, which can plague her delivery (it occasionally troubles in Fauré for example). But her Saint-Saëns is really excellent, all her registers integrated and sung with passionate affection, and Don Carlos is dramatic and fiery – with a trumpeting lower register. I’m sure that Hamilton Harty would have raised a whimsical Hillsborough eyebrow at the typo in the booklet that renders his surname Hartly but his contribution to Beethoven’s In questa tomba oscura is dramatic and mausoleum black. Butt is in one of her more oratorical moods here but there is a certain imperishable nobility and dramatic force that can’t be gainsaid, even if one finds it just too much. A 1909 coupling of Annie Scott and Fauré offers a study in her simplicity that opens out into forceful declamation (the former) and the light, floated style in which she lightens and refines her voice (the latter). In the section marked The cruel sea we find Hullah’s Three fishers went sailing in which her narrative command and portamento rich floated tone manifest themselves once again. Despite those occasional gear changes and a descent to the baritonal there is an inwardness and a communicative intimacy that conveys with richness the true meaning of the text. It’s true that in an analogous song, Women of Inver, one can hear her preparing for that downward extension but when the effect is so moving the mechanisms involved somehow become subsumed into the greater whole.

The second disc offers comparable rewards. The most important of the items – which includes an unpublished 1910 HMV, Batten’s Peace and rest – are the Elgar. In the selections from Gerontius with tenor Maurice D’Oisley and conducted by Henry Wood. D’Oisley was a fine musician with a slight baritonal burnish at the bottom of his compass and with a tone not quite as "centred" as, say, Heddle Nash. Wood is flexible and full of ear catching rubati, forwardly moving, and strong. Butt is free as well and forceful; intensely rewarding to listen to her in this literature. In the lighter repertoire, characterized here as Songs about or for children, she can use her lower register to powerfully scaled effect (My treasure) or once more mine her often overlooked powers of delicacy and sensitivity (The fairy pipers). Trivial stuff maybe but still beautifully executed. Hatton’s The enchantress is a song guaranteed to draw from her considerable powers of expression and so it proves, with her fearless octave leaps and plentiful chest register. The unpublished Batten song is good with no really disruptive blemish and represents a worthwhile retrieval; other Butt records have surfaced in the last few years so let’s hope Marston will be able to give us more of them.

Cameo appearances by Butt’s husband, the baritone Kennerley Rumford and by her singing sisters Pauline, Hazel and Ethel add their own period charms. The documentation is attractive with a number of evocative Edwardian photographs and postcards of the singer, matrix and issue numbers all present and correct, as one would expect from a company like Marston, and these are conspicuously successful transfers by Ward Marston himself. Roll on volume two.

Jonathan Woolf


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