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Henry Walford DAVIES (1869-1941)
Everyman – Cantata (1904; 1934 revisions of two movements are included as a supplement)
Elena Ferrari (soprano – Good Deeds), Jennifer Johnston (contralto – Knowledge), Andrew Staples (tenor – Death), Pauls Putnins (bass – Everyman)
London Oriana Choir
Kensington Symphony Orchestra/David Drummond
Recorded 13-15 February 2004. Henry Wood Hall, London.
Additional track (unspecified) 25 June 2004, St. John’s, Smith Square, London
DUTTON CDLX7141 [68:55]


AVAILABILITY

www.duttonlabs.demon.co.uk

Dutton have already dedicated a disc to Walford Davies (CDLX 7108) entitled "Solemn Melody", based around his famous piece of that name, interspersing his few organ works with contributions from his friends and contemporaries and concluding with some examples of his broadcast talks. I was much impressed by the planning of this disc, feeling that it was a model of how to make something interesting out of limited resources, both financial and (maybe) musical.

Walford Davies’s broadcast talks did much to bring music closer to Everyman at a time when the "wireless" (as my grandmother’s generation used to call the radio) was in its infancy. It was his cantata "Everyman" which, among his larger pieces, brought him his greatest success. Premièred at the 1904 Leeds Festival it was praised by Vaughan Williams and for a few years enjoyed a remarkable success with choral societies up and down the country. The conductor of the Leeds Festival, Stanford, complimented Davies for "adding to the world’s wholesome music". Maybe this was a backhanded swipe at Strauss’s "unwholesome" Tod und Verklärung which Stanford had reluctantly allowed into the Festival programme. Yet, of the British works premièred at that same Festival (others were Holbrooke’s "Queen Mab", Parry’s "Voces Clamantium", Mackenzie’s "The Witch’s Daughter" and Charles Wood’s "The Ballad of Dundee") it is Stanford’s own "Songs of the Sea" which, in their bluff but touching way, have so far made the greatest inroads on Everyman’s consciousness. Walford Davies’s work somehow never resurfaced after the First World War and the conductor of this recording has been able to trace only two subsequent performances, in London (1929) and Reading (1982), before his own in 2003 and 2004 which led to this recording.

Whether or not Drummond’s and Dutton’s efforts succeed in reinstating the work in the popular repertoire (Drummond’s stated wish), its erstwhile fame and its lingering hearsay reputation made it imperative that a recording should be available. So what has it to offer?

"Everyman" takes its text from a Victorian version of an old Morality Play. In spite of a few "Olde Worlde Tea Shoppe" touches ("Why askest thou? Wouldest thou not?") it has an essential seriousness, a mystic purpose embedded in remoteness. Reading it through in preparation to listening, I tried to imagine the sort of music that might be suited to it, a sort of modernized plainchant, I thought, rising to some gravely harmonized choral passages.

I certainly didn’t expect what I actually heard, and I think it fair to say that anyone listening to the music without a knowledge of the text being sung (say, a foreigner with no understanding of English) would very likely imagine a subject matter quite different from that which he is effectively hearing. In spite of the generally serious tone, there is a richness, a sumptuousness, even a sensuousness to its language which might not suggest a religious work at all. Some lively passages even conjure up images of a rustic wedding or the like.

Obviously, Davies is entitled to his own response to the poetry he is setting, but my principal problem with the work remains this apparent dichotomy between the tone of the music and the tone of the words. On the other hand, the music is in itself very good music, wrought with a fine but never heavy professional hand. It flows easily from point to point, its climaxes clearly and satisfyingly shaped, the orchestration luminous and colourful. And, although it occasionally suggests Brahms, Elgar, Richard Strauss or maybe Reger, in the last resort I found the nearest parallel to be with the stately, large-limbed emptiness of Lorenzo Perosi, the Vatican’s hugely prolific and once-successful "house-composer" in those same years. This gives credence to Scott Godard’s gibe that "unlike Parry [Walford Davies] was a Churchman first, religion coming some distance behind" (British Music of our Time, ed A.L. Bacharach, Pelican 1946). However, one moment at least is truly memorable, as Everyman, having prayed vainly to Kindred and Fellowship, to Riches and to Good Deeds, is finally impelled by Knowledge to pray to God. At the close of this section the voice of the soprano, Good-Deeds, soars over chorus and orchestra as she promises to go with him on his journey. This I found truly moving and it surely found an echo in Stanford’s "The Travelling Companion". Together with the stirring conclusion, it made me wonder if, now that I had found Davies’s wave-length, I might be more convinced by the earlier stages of the piece.

Here I found myself up against another problem. In many ways the performance is extremely fine. The London Oriana Choir has a rich, vibrant sound and memories of the old days when the Kensington Symphony Orchestra under Leslie Head, the heroes of many a brave rescue operation, found valour the better part of discretion, are banished by the highly skilled playing heard here. David Drummond conducts with fervour, dedication and, as far as I can tell without a score, an unerring sense of pacing. Unfortunately the soloists are all heavy wobblers. In three cases out of four this is just within the limits where I am prepared to put up with it, while wishing they didn’t. But in the case of Pauls Putnins in the all-important role of Everyman I am quite distressed by the jaded, wavery tones of what sounds to be an elderly voice long past its prime. From the biographical notes this seems not to be the case and the group photograph suggests he is actually very young, raising alarming thoughts as to what he will sound like when he really is long past his prime. Maybe the reality is not quite as bad as it sounds, since microphones have a way of exaggerating a certain type of vibrato, but as I put the record back on I found this ghastly bleating sound to be even more irritating the second time round and I just didn’t stay the course. Could he not sort this out?

There is no doubt about the importance of this recording as a document and at least part of the music still has the power to move. Only the individual listener can decide whether the singing of the principal solo role is an unredeemable fly in the ointment. The recording is spacious, there are brief but pithy essays by Lewis Foreman and David Drummond and the text is provided.

Christopher Howell

see also

PROSPICE Songs with quartet. Piano.
H Walford Davies
: Prospice; George Butterworth: Love Blows as the Wind Blows; Arthur Somervell: A Broken Arc; Geoffrey Bush: Farewell, Earth's Bliss; Ralph Vaughan Williams: Five Mystical Songs.
Martin Oxenham (baritone); Bingham String Quartet; Katharine Durran (piano). Meridian. Duo DUOCD 89026 75' 12" [LF]

Every so often one comes across a recording which has long been available but has somehow failed to attract much notice or be widely subscribed by record stores, and yet on investigation proves to be a complete revelation.

 



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