Somm have already put us in their debt by making available
the songs of John Jeffreys which I reviewed a few days ago, and which
I was disappointed not to have enjoyed more. Here we have a disc devoted
to more songs, with some part-songs this time, by another composer whose
name will be known, I think, to relatively few readers. From the excellent
introductory notes we learn that Percy Turnbull was musically gifted
as a child, singing in the choir of the Cathedral Church of St. Nicholas,
Newcastle, but that his professional experience in music was varied,
not always satisfying, and somewhat sporadic, including periods of unemployment.
He went into the army in 1941, but the end of the decade sees him teaching
the piano in Surrey, which he continued to do until his retirement.
Most of his songs, and therefore the majority of the music on this disc,
were written before the composer was thirty. One frustrating aspect
of the notes is that they make little reference to his other works,
of which, I feel sure, there must have been a certain number, though
it would seem that he stopped composing for quite a few years and devoted
himself to another love, painting. One of his watercolours adorns the
cover of the booklet.
Getting to know these songs straight after those of
John Jeffreys, one is, above all, conscious of a more open texture,
both letting in and giving off more light. The piano accompaniments
are more varied, the vocal lines more wide-ranging and more immediately
memorable. There is greater response to and illustration of individual
words and ideas than in Jeffreys’ songs, though this is never carried
to extremes. There is also humour here, a feature missing almost totally
from the Jeffreys recital. The composer who most came to mind as I listened
to these songs was Finzi. John Ireland is cited in the booklet, both
as a friend and as an influence, but I hear very little in the harmony
here which is reminiscent of Ireland and indeed the writers make precisely
this point too. Another friend was John Longmire (Ireland’s first biographer.
Ed.), a name which will be familiar to many pianists who were young
in the nineteen-fifties.
The first song, Chloris in the Snow, was composed
before the composer was twenty, and is accomplished enough to make us
wonder why he did not to go on to achieve greater things. The melody
is wide-ranging with an inevitability about it which is far from predictability.
The word "grief" receives special treatment. The little piano
introduction sets the mood beautifully and there is a lovely postlude
too, which ends with a single, staccato note low in the bass register,
witty and surprisingly effective.
There’s more humour in the setting of Shakespeare’s
When daffodils begin to peer, especially in the piano writing,
and a particularly lovely closing cadence. As is almost always the case
with music of this period however, even with Finzi himself, it sounds
nothing like Shakespeare.
Particularly interesting is the insight we receive
into the process of composition when we listen to the two songs which
exist in two versions. They are reworkings of the same material rather
than different settings, but the differences in detail are intriguing.
Turnbull’s violent, even angry, response to Hardy’s poem The Reminder
is surprising, but the second version features a clever sleight of hand
in a little piano postlude which brings the song to an ambiguous close
in a manner which is positively Schubertian.
Turnbull’s last song, written long after the others,
is a setting of Herrick’s To Blossoms, a poem in which he uses
the image of flowers, as he does in To Daffodils, to lament the
sadly temporary hold each of us has on the earth. Turnbull’s setting
is valedictory in nature and extremely touching.
To Blossoms exists also as a part-song, where
the musical material is largely the same, but it is less successful
in this form, and on the evidence here I find Turnbull’s choral writing
to be less satisfactory on the whole than his writing for voice and
piano. In spite of the harmonic and melodic freshness, not to mention
its originality, there is a lack of variety of texture in writing which
is primarily chordal. The potential of the choir and its scope are rarely
exploited. And the wonder of the magic wood created by Shakespeare in
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is sadly lacking in this setting of
Ye Spotted Snakes.
The singing on this disc brings great pleasure. Roderick
Williams’ warm baritone voice perhaps slightly better suited to this
repertoire than Nancy Argenta’s, but this is a small matter as the performances
from both singers are uniformly excellent, and beautifully accompanied
by Robin Bowman. The Joyful Company of Singers, well known to many collectors,
is as reliable as always.
We learn from Somm’s excellent booklet – in which all
the sung texts are printed – that most of Percy Turnbull’s music is
published by Thames Publishing, which is no doubt a piece of generosity
and vision characteristic of that house’s proprietor, the late John