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Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

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The Very Best of English Song

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958): ‘Linden Lea’ [2’51"]
John IRELAND (1879-1962): ‘The Salley Gardens’ (Songs Sacred and Profane, No. 4) [2’14"]
Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918): ‘O mistress mine’ (English Lyrics Set II, No. 1) [2’14"]
(1877-1953): ‘Love’s Philosophy’, Op. 3, No. 1 [1’27"]
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo soprano); Gerald Moore (piano)
Roger QUILTER: ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’, Op. 3, No. 2 [2’11"]
Graham PEEL (1877-1937): ‘Bredon Hill’ [3’44"]
Sir Thomas Allen (baritone); Geoffrey Parsons (piano)
George BUTTERWORTH (1865-1918): ‘Loveliest of trees’ (A Shropshire Lad, No. 1) [2’51"]
(1890-1937): ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ [2’34"]; ‘Black Stitchel’ [2’10"]
(1894-1930): ‘My Own Country’ [2’34"]; ‘Passing By’ [2’30"]; ‘Pretty Ring Time’ [1’11"]
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor); David Willison (piano)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: ‘The Lamb’* [2’16"]; ‘The Shepherd’ [0’49"] (Ten Blake Songs Nos. 5 and 6)
Ian Partridge (tenor); *Janet Craxton (oboe)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS ‘Silent Noon’ (The House of Life No. 2) [4’16"]
‘Come away, death’ [3’02"]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956): ‘Since we loved’ (O fair to see No. 7) [1’12"]
Ian Bostridge (tenor); Julius Drake (piano)
Gerald FINZI: ‘Rollicum-rorum’ (Earth and Air and Rain No.6) [2’01"]
John IRELAND: ‘Sea Fever’ [2’11"]
Frederick KEEL (1871-1954): ‘Trade Winds’ (Salt-Water Ballads No. 2) [2’19"]
Jonathan Lemalu (bass-baritone); Roger Vignoles (piano)
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924): ‘Drake’s Drum’ [2’43"] ‘The Old Superb’ [3’23"] (Songs of the Sea, Nos. 1 and 5)
Robert Lloyd (bass); Nina Walker (piano)
Amy WOODFORDE-FINDEN (1860-1919): ‘Kashmiri Song’ (Four Indian Love-Lyrics No. 3) [2’54"]
Frederick Harvey (baritone); Jack Byfield (piano)
May BRAHE (1884-1956): ‘Bless this House’ [3’16"]
Peter WARLOCK: ‘Balulalow’ [1’45"]
Dame Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano); Sir Philip Ledger (organ)
Charles DIBDIN (1745-1814): ‘Tom Bowling’ [4’19]
Henry R. BISHOP (1786-1855): ‘Home! Sweet home’ [3’37]
Michael William BALFE (1808-1870): ‘Come into the garden, Maud’ [4’06"]
Robert Tear (tenor); André Previn (piano)
Arr. Benjamin BRITTEN
(1913-1976): ‘The Foggy, Foggy Dew’ [2’24’]; ‘The Plough Boy’ [1’44"]
Robert Tear (tenor); Sir Philip Ledger (piano)
Sir William WALTON (1902-1983): ‘Popular Song’ (Façade No 19) [2’00"]
Michael Flanders (reciter); members of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Field directed by Sir Neville Marriner

Trad. English ‘Greensleeves’ [2’11"]
Thomas MORLEY (1557/8 – 1602): ‘It was a lover and his lass’ [3’10"]
Attrib. MORLEY: ‘O mistress mine’ [1’39"]
Anon. (17th Century): ‘The Willow Song’ [4’16"]
(c1583-1633); ‘Where the bee sucks’ [1’14"]; ‘Full fathom five’ [2’06"]
Alfred Deller (counter-tenor); Desmond Dupré (lute)
William BYRD (c1540-1623): ‘Lullaby, my sweet little baby’ [5’59"]; ‘Elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis: Ye sacred muses’ [4’04"]
Michael Chance (countertenor); Fretwork
John DOWLAND (1563-1626): ‘Sorrow, stay!’ (Second Book of Songs) [3’04"]; ‘Can she excuse my wrongs? (First Book of Songs) [2’32"]
‘Awake, sweet love’ (First Book of Songs) [2’48"]
‘Woeful heart’* (Second Book of Songs) [2’51"]
Emma Kirkby (soprano); Anthony Rooley (lute and *orpharion)
John DOWLAND: ‘Shall I sue?’ [2’37"] (Second Book of Songs); ‘Me, me and none but me’ (Third and Last Book of Songs) [2’11"]; ‘Flow, my tears’ (Second Book of Songs) [3’51"]
Charles Daniels (tenor); David Miller (lute)
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695): ‘Fairest Isle’* [2’36"]; ‘Music for a while’** [3’55"]; ‘I attempt from love’s sickness’*** [2’02"]; ‘If music be the food of love’ Z379 ****[2’06"]; ‘An Evening Hymn: Now that the sun hath veiled
his light’ Z193 ***** [5’17"]
Nancy Argenta (soprano); * Nigel North (archlute); **John Toll (harpsichord); *** Paul Nicholson (harpsichord); **** John Toll (harpsichord), Richard Boothby (gamba); ***** Paul Nicholson (chamber organ)
Peter WARLOCK: ‘Yarmouth Fair’ [1’37"]
Charles G. MORTIMER (1880-1957): The Smuggler’s Song’* [3’33"]
Owen Brannigan (bass); Ernest Lush (piano); *Gerald Moore (piano)
Sidney CARTER (b. 1915): ‘Down Below’ [2’41"]
Donald SWANN
(1923-1994): ‘A Transport of Delight’ [2’34"]; ‘The Wart Hog’ [3’43"]
Ian Wallace (baritone); Donald Swann (piano)
Donald SWANN: ‘The Hippopotamus Song’ [4’02"]
Michael Flanders and Donald Swann (recorded live at the Fortune Theatre, London, 2 May 1959)
EMI CLASSICS 7243 5 75926 2 8 [79’13" + 79’23"]


It is dangerous to entitle any collection "The Very Best of…." Such a title immediately invites the retort: "says who?" In the case of this collection I’m sure every reader of this review would be able to add a couple of favourites which have not made it into this selection. For myself I would suggest, straight off the top of my head, Gurney’s ‘Sleep’, Finzi’s ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ to say nothing of ‘The cloths of heaven’ in the outstanding setting by Thomas F. Dunhill (1877-1946). A few minutes more reflection prompts claims on behalf of ‘Silver’ by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960) and ’King David’ by Herbert Howells (1892-1983). Such omissions (and I’ve only mentioned twentieth-century songs) are all the more frustrating when one considers the items whose inclusion here is at best questionable.

I must confess to being perplexed by this collection and in the heading to this review I’ve made clear what each disc contains. There seems to me to be no consistent editorial theme or, perhaps, I should say I think I can discern a theme but one with a number of aberrations. The bulk of both the items on each CD seem to constitute a pretty representative overview of the evolution of English song up to, say, the early 1950s. However, what are we to make of the inclusion of, say, ‘Bless this house’ or the songs by Balfe and Bishop? Even more egregious, it seems to me, is the second CD where Purcell, Dowland et al are juxtaposed with Flanders and Swann (of whose songs, by the way, I am an ardent admirer). This just doesn’t work in any way, I think. It’s almost as if EMI’s compiler had decided "We must have some lighter items; where is there room?" I’m sorry, but this seems to me to be a thoughtless way of assembling a collection and I think this carelessness is equally offensive to admirers of Flanders and Swann as it is to lovers of Dowland or Byrd.

John Steane contributes a liner essay which is characteristically elegant, readable and well informed (is there currently a better writer on the human voice and the history of singing?). He makes quite a good fist of justifying the contents of the collection but I sense that even he is struggling to make his case in certain respects. Readers will judge the list of contents for themselves.

What of the performances? Well, as can be seen from the contents list the set includes many of the very finest examples of the last four centuries of English song. From the list of artists (pianists as well as singers) you’ll no doubt expect performances worthy of the music on offer. By and large you won’t be disappointed. However, for me one major disappointment lay in the contributions of Robert Tear. I’m afraid I’ve never found the timbre of his voice very appealing (though that’s a matter of subjective taste, I realise.) More objectively, however, the wide vibrato which has become a more marked feature of his singing as the years have passed is often distressingly evident here. I found myself yearning for the steadiness of production that Ian Partridge, to name but one, displays in his all-too brief contributions (CD 1, tracks 13 and 14). Tear makes a real meal of that fine song, ‘Tom Bowling’ (CD 1, track 26) and is no better in the other two Victorian ballads (CD 1, tracks 27 and 28). Neither of these is remotely in the class of ‘Tom Bowling’ and I regret their inclusion simply on grounds of musical merit.

Happily, the other performances in the anthology are much better. In fact, there are many highlights. Just to single out a few (invidiously), I greatly enjoyed the two Byrd offerings from Michael Chance, especially the deeply affecting ‘Elegy on the death of Thomas Tallis’ (CD 2, track 7). Nancy Argenta bestows her silvery soprano on the Purcell group to good effect, not least in ‘An Evening Hymn’ (CD 2, track 20) and all four of Emma Kirkby’s Dowland offerings (CD 2, tracks 9 – 12) will delight her admirers.

Moving to the more modern items, Peel’s evocative ‘Bredon Hill’ is marvellously delivered by Thomas Allen (CD1, track 6). As I’ve implied, Ian Partridge is exemplary in the two Vaughan Williams songs allotted to him (CD 1, tracks 13 and 14). Further fine tenor singing is provided by the mellifluous Anthony Rolfe Johnson who is especially effective in Butterworth’s ‘Loveliest of trees’ (CD 1, track 7) though his other offerings are no less fine. To complete a trio of fine tenors Ian Bostridge is wonderful in RVW’s ‘Silent Noon’ (CD 1, track 15) and in Finzi’s affecting little gem, ‘Since we loved’ (CD 1, track 17). Just to prove that the tenors don’t have it all their own way the rising star bass-baritone, Jonathan Lemalu can be heard to particular advantage in Ireland’s ‘Sea Fever’ (CD 1, track 19) and, indeed, all three of his songs will give much pleasure.

There are also several items of predictable distinction from Dame Janet Baker. However, I must admit to some surprise that EMI apparently could not find in their vaults even one example of twentieth-century song sung by a soprano!

It’s no surprise these days to find that no texts are provided. Without exception the diction of the singers is excellent so English-speaking listeners should have no difficulty hearing what is being sung. That said, many of the texts are far from straightforward and texts would have been a great help, especially to the listener who may be less familiar with the repertoire (and at whom, I presume, this issue is particularly aimed). No recording dates are given, except for the very last track of all. However, I infer from the original publication dates, most of which are given, that the recordings were made between the 1950s and the late 1990s. Inevitably, therefore, the recording quality varies but it is never less than fully satisfactory.

How, then to sum up this collection? For the seasoned collector of this repertoire it may well offer the chance to plug a few gaps in your collection. For the newcomer to English song, I envy you coming new to the riches of this repertoire, many of which are contained in this collection and in fine performances. I just feel that with a bit more thought this could have been an outstanding anthology rather than just a useful one. A worthwhile bargain, nonetheless.

John Quinn


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