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Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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John JEFFREYS (b.1927)
Curlew Calling: Songs by John Jeffreys (1952-2001)
CD1: The Lone Bird; This night; Sweeney the Mad; Fill me, O stars; Black Stitchel; Sleep; Christ's Nativity; The Birds; I am the gilly of Christ; I saw Love raised upon a tree; At the cry of the first bird; Who is at my window; From Omiecourt; Severn Meadows; In Marley Wood; Corpus Christi; Requiem; Thomas MacDonagh; Curlew Calling; With rue my heart is laden;
CD2: Awake thee, my Bessy; And would you see my mistress' face? O Mistress Mine; It was a lover and his lass; The Whin; The Salley Gardens; Yet will I love her; A light wind; The Quarry; Gone is my love from the silver stream; It is winter; Near Spring; When the body might free; 'Tis time I think; The Herons; The High Hills; I will go with my father a-ploughing; Northumberland; All night under the moon; The songs I had; When that I was and a little tiny boy;
Scot Weir (tenor)
Rainer Hoffmann (piano)
SONIC MARKETLC11224 P +C2005 GEMA [2CD set; No duration given]



It seems to me astonishing that John Jeffreys, as if a man born out of time, succeeds in amalgamating the character of the Elizabethan lutenists (on whom he is a recognised authority) with the harmonic piquancy of the early twentieth century – the Georgians in particular. He achieves, without conscious artifice in setting earlier texts, an individual voice. The vocal line with which his music sings is thoughtfully deployed within prismatic harmony, assuming, chameleon-like, the evocative colour and texture of the poetic image. The scoring too is characteristic – the melodic inflexions and melisma influenced by the free rhythms of the Elizabethans; the harmonic texture suggesting string quartet writing.

It is perhaps unnecessary to say that the poetic image is one that from Elizabethan times and through to the early twentieth century is completely English, enshrining the very character – literary and geographical as well as musical – of a lyrical national identity. This is not simply a rearrangement of folk-material but something inherent in the psyche of our race. Its many allusions are evident in the varied texts of these forty-one songs. It is that rare thing that, from the days of Palgrave in countless anthologies, is the essence of English lyrical expression.

His setting of Fletcher’s "Sleep" shows this personality in essence. The melody could be by Rossetter or Dowland, the harmony by Gurney. Yet together there emerges a unique musical identity – an amalgam of Elizabethan and Georgian sentiment. As this recital develops, its strength emerges as lying in a kind of melancholy that is itself an eclectic mixture of resignation and heart’s-ease. He is a reflective musician – his reaction to the poetic text is not immediate, often setting the same poem several times over, expressive of quite distinct moods. Reflective? Yes, and programming a recital where there is such a prevailing mood and when almost all the songs are in a slow tempo, is apt to result in monotony, even boredom.

Scot Weir successfully overcomes this danger here by dividing the recital into five sections, each prefaced by a quotation which sets the mood. Perhaps it does more, and seems to probe deeply into the very heart of the music’s impulse.

The first section is prefaced by Joseph Campbell’s line "Fill me O stars as with an olden tune", the music full of the open air and moorland cries, Nature at her barest, bereft of all comfort. The second has Belloc’s words, "Bless mine hands and fill mine eyes/And bring my soul to paradise". The mood of the six songs in this group is one of supplication tinged with dramatic mysticism, its strongest expression in the setting of Barry Jones’ poem "I saw Love raised upon a tree".

The third group is in some way central to the whole, taking its mood from the Northumbrian poet, W W Gibson "Come from barren ways and blind/ Where men seek but never find". This evocation of the desolation of the memory of things past, of distant death, is beautifully poignant especially in the three Gurney settings – From Omiecourt, with its "orchards that hedges thick enfold": Severn Meadows, an exquisite short song with an extended piano prelude that encapsulates the intensity of the emotion which words alone could not express: and Requiem for the poet’s dead friend.

But the culmination of the group is "Curlew Calling". It is the essence of the whole recital – a song whose Van Dieren-like texture is expressive of a dark yearning for the security of homecoming, perhaps of death. This image that is later repeated in Barry Duane Hill’s "A light wind". I might venture to suggest that the placing of this Gibson song, with the subdued intensity of its emotional climax, could seem approximately at the ‘Golden Mean’. Certainly the music suggests, ‘a man born out of time’

With the first track of the second disc "Awake thee, my Bessy", we are in another world. The opening quotation "But change she earth or change she sky/Yet will I love her till I die" also suggests the agonies of love. This song of Thomas Ford, with its love at first sight is nearer to Parry than to Warlock, ranking in beautiful simplicity with Lane Wilson’s collection, as delicate as the lovely Celia. The setting in this group of "It was a lover and his lass" has a delightful freshness that amply justifies the composer’s daring to set such a well used text!

And together with the frailty of human emotions, there is in the following section the solace of Nature, here in the Spirit of Place. An opening quote from Housman "Lie long high snowdrifts in the hedge/That will not shower on me" underlines the melancholic: it is that strange ache in the loins that can affect one when a particular place or scene suddenly seems, with its attendant memories and associations, to have an especial emotional impact. This final group contains three of Jeffreys’ finest songs: "I will go with my father a-ploughing" (a song that, of all his songs, should earn the composer’s place in the canon of English song); "All Night under the Moon" (the first of three different settings - wasn’t it Lawrence who said of the poet Gibson and his wife, "they should be happy as birds in a quiet wood") – and the eloquent "Northumberland".

The collection on this double CD set is richly representative of a composer of the most delicate sensitivity to the meanings of words, and in this fine recital every nuance of that expressiveness is given voice by the singer Scot Weir and his partner Rainer Hoffmann. It should be in the library of every lover of song – and indeed in the repertoire of every English singer!

A sad Epilogue to the issue of this CD (Echoed perhaps in the dark liner, with its ‘grey rains’ and curlew drawn by Diane Pryke of Haverhill) took place when a live performance was given at St Cyprian’s Church in London on 8th July 2003 by the soloists. This was as a memorial tribute to Kenneth Roberton who died on 4th May 2003 at the age of 89, and whose support and encouragement, both as friend and as publisher, restored this music to us (much of which the composer had earlier destroyed). We are in his debt.

Colin Scott-Sutherland

 

 



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