Roger Quilter was certainly no modernist. Almost
exclusively remembered for his songs which were deeply imbued
with the spirit of English pastoralism that was flourishing in
the late Victorian and Edwardian period. The late-romanticism
in England that Quilter surrounded himself with, together with
the resurgence and establishment of English Art-Song was assisted
by a new vitality in English literature and a renewed interest
in the English folk-song, its landscape and heritage.
The exceptional available verse from poets such
as A.E. Housman, W.B. Yeats, John Masefield, Robert Graves, Edward
Shanks et al all seemed so relevant in view of the great
tensions in the country around the time of the Great War. Quilter
was not the only composer captivated by and sensitive to the mood
of the time as displayed by his contemporaries notably: Ivor Gurney,
Arthur Somervell, E.J. Moeran, Frank Bridge, Ralph Vaughan Williams,
George Butterworth and Peter Warlock.
Roger Cuthbert Quilter was born in 1877, in Brighton
on the south coast of England into an extremely wealthy and influential
family. Finding that Eton public school was not conducive to a
man of his sensitivity Quilter circumvented the traditional route
to Oxbridge and proceeded to attend music college in Frankfurt,
Germany. Music academies were not as well established or as advanced
in England as they were in some parts of Europe. Consequently
several of Quilter’s English contemporaries trod the same musical
study route to Frankfurt, namely Cyril Scott, Percy Grainger,
Norman O’Neil and Balfour Gardiner, who collectively became known
as the ‘Frankfurt Group‘.
Quilter composed in several genres but is almost
entirely remembered for his writing for the voice with piano accompaniment.
With regard to his songs Quilter has been described as being a
outstanding craftsman with a sparkling quality. The art-songs
themselves are always lyrical and practical too, never over-elaborated
with any hint of complex structures, consequently they have remained
extremely popular with singers and audiences alike. The involved
accompaniment to a Quilter song is always sensitively incorporated
with the vocal-line; a style which was not always typical of the
songs of his contemporaries. Quilter’s songs are unashamedly romantic,
often with an atmosphere of reflection and melancholy that is
all too common in English music from this period but maybe is
founded in Quilter’s own often troubled personality.
From the beginning to around the middle of the
20th Century, when mental illness impeded his ability to write,
Quilter was arguably the leading English song composer of his
generation. He was most careful about his word setting, extremely
conscious about the balance between the requirements and technical
limitations of performers and it is generally accepted by performers
that to perform a Quilter song is a delightful and rewarding experience.
However there are some detractors who comment adversely about
the relative simplicity and lack of depth and vision about his
songs. Perhaps the impression of simplicity blended with a compositional
conciseness and lack of complexity is the mark of Quilter’s true
genius. If one is looking for the arcane and the recondite or
challenging and intellectual stimulation, clearly a Quilter song
is not the place to look. It is best to fully accept that his
songs are consistently rewarding, giving immeasurable pleasure
to performer and listener alike. One thing for certain is that
Quilter’s songs have stood the test of time and this Naxos release
bears testament to his art.
The material contained in this Naxos release
in their English song series has been previously issued by Collins
Classics, a few years ago back in 1998 and it is good to have
these works back in the catalogue again; especially at super budget
price. The songs here are performed by the tenor Anthony Rolfe
Johnson and the soprano Lisa Milne with the performances shared
fairly evenly between the two in all but a couple of duets. The
majority of the songs have the singers accompanied by pianist
Graham Johnson only. However the piano accompaniment is augmented
in the Three Pastoral Songs with a violin and cello
and in the cycle of eight songs To Julia, by the members
of the Duke Quartet.
The programme commences with a duet in It
was a lover and his lass where Lisa Milne and Anthony Rolfe
Johnson combine their soprano and tenor voices sublimely, offering
the listener a taste of the pleasures to come. Anthony Rolfe Johnson
consistently excels in these warm lyrical settings with perhaps
the songs O mistress mine and Go lovely rose being
the finest examples of the experienced tenor’s admirable control
and wide range of expression.
Talented soprano Lisa Milne goes from strength
to strength and seems especially at home with the intimacy and
challenge of a song recital programme. Personally I feel the soprano’s
voice is at her purest in the upper registers and especially when
pressed by the demands of the song. The soprano’s lovely phrasing
and clarity of articulation is displayed to fine effect in How
should I your true love know and her light and pleasing vibrato
seems especially well suited to the songs Ca’ the yowes to
the knows and Autumn Evening. The Quilter recital ends
as it began with a fine duet, Love calls through the summer
night which concludes the proceedings with a climax of intense
emotion and vigour.
How could any song recital improve on the sensitive
accompaniment of pianist Graham Johnson who as usual gives a sterling
performances in repertoire that seems to the manor born. The sound
quality is soft edged which seems to assist in creating the atmosphere
of a chamber recital.
There are two recordings which exclusively contain
Quilter songs that any listener might consider as alternatives
or in addition to this Naxos release. On Hyperion CDA 66878 with
the tenor John Mark Ainsley with Malcolm Martineau on piano and
on Chandos CHAN 8782 with the baritone Benjamin Luxon accompanied
by David Willison on piano. Not surprisingly both discs contain
some duplication of songs and are very fine recordings too; especially
I feel the Hyperion release with John Mark Ainsley.
These performances of Quilter’s intimate and
cultivated songs are most accomplished, sounding spontaneous and
expressive with a real sense of intense communication. There are
strong claims for this pleasurable Naxos release.