> Percy TURNBULL - Songs and Part-Songs [WH]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Percy TURNBULL (1902-1976)
Songs and Part-Songs:

Chloris in the Snow
In Fountain Court
A Boy’s Song
My Bed is a Boat
To Julia
When Daffodils begin to peer
Ejaculation to God
To God
Piping down the Valleys Wild
If Doughty Deeds
The Rainy Day
The Moon
The Moon (second setting)
The Reminder
The Reminder (second setting)
Guess, Guess
My Mopsa is Little
To Blossoms
The Shower
Where go the boats?
Take me to the North Countrie
You spotted snakes
There was as simple maiden
To Blossoms (second setting)
Nancy Argenta, soprano; Roderick Williams, baritone
Robin Bowman, piano; Alistair Young, piano (in "Where go the boats?")
The Joyful Company of Singers, directed by Peter Broadbent
Solo songs recorded July and September 2000 at St. Philip’s Church, London, UK
Part-songs recorded in March 2000 at Southlands College, London, UK

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 Bishop.

William Hedley

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