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Songs of the British Isles
Traditional, arr. William Gillies WHITTAKER (1876-1944)

Ma bonny lad [01:49] (1), The Keel Row [01:47] (2), Blow the wind southerly [02:21] (3)
Traditional arr. Herbert HUGHES (1882-1937)

I have a bonnet trimmed with blue [01:15] (4)
Traditional, collected and arr. SHARPE

My boy Willie [01:47] (5)
Traditional, arr. HUGHES, adapt. GRAY

I know where I’m going [02:21] (6)
Traditional, arr. Sir Hugh ROBERTON (1874-1952)

The fidgety bairn [02:49] (7)
Traditional, arr. HUGHES

I will walk with my love [01:58] (8)
Traditional, arr. Maurice JACOBSON (1896-1976)

Ca’ the yowes [03:24] (9)
Traditional, coll. Cecil SHARP (1859-1924) arr. Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)

O waly, waly [03:33] (10)
Traditional, arr. Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)

Willow, willow [03:30] (11)
Traditional, arr. HUGHES

The stuttering lovers [01:46] (12)
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)

Now sleeps the crimson petal op.3/2 [02:33] (13), The fair house of joy op.12/7 (from "7 Elizabethan Lyrics") [02:36] (14), To daisies op. 6/3 (from "To Julia") [02:13] (15)
Anonymous (Air from Musick’s Recreation on the Lyra Viol 1652), arr. QUILTER

Over the mountains (from "Old English Popular Songs") [02:14] (16)
Traditional, arr. GREW

Have you seen the white lillie grow [02:27] (17)
Traditional, arr. QUILTER

Ye banks and braes [03:08] (18)
Colonel MELLISH (1777-1817), arr. QUILTER

Drink to me only (from "Old English Popular Songs") [03:03] (19)
Traditional, arr. HUGHES

Down by the Salley Gardens [03:06] (20), The Lover’s Curse [02:59] (21)
Sir Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)

The Fairy Lough op.77/2 (from "An Irish Idyll") [03:44] (22), A Soft Day op.140/3 (from "A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster") [02:56] (23)
Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)

Love is a Bable (from "English Lyrics", Sixth Set, no.3) [01:44] (24)
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Silent Noon (from "The House of Life") [04:56] (25)
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)

Go not happy day H.34 [01:38] (26)
Peter WARLOCK

Sleep [02:51] (27), Pretty ring-time [01:22] (28)
Traditional, arr. BRITTEN

Come you not from Newcastle [01:36] (29)
Traditional, arr. HUGHES

Kitty my love [01:23]
Kathleen Ferrier (contralto), Phyllis Spurr (piano) (1, 2, 4-6, 8, 10-21), John Newmark (piano) (7, 9), Frederick Stone (piano) (22-30)
Recorded 10th February 1949 (1-3, 17), 11th February 1949 (11, 20-21), 17th July 1950 (7, 9), 10th December 1951 (4-5, 8, 10, 12-13), 11th December 1951 (6, 14-15), 12th December 1951 (16, 18-19), 5th June 1952 (22-30) at the Decca Studios, Broadhurst Gardens, London (1-21) and the Concert Hall, Broadcasting House, London (22-30)
CD transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS 8.111081 [74:48]

 

There are two issues here, really. There are those who feel that, when performances have circulated as widely as these, a reviewer should limit himself to commenting on the quality of the transfers. I don’t agree and I fully intend to deal with the music and the performances too, but I will start by considering whether there is any point in adding the present CD to your collection if you already have Decca’s own transfers (based on the master tapes), or in preferring this version if you have neither, especially in view of Mark Obert-Thorn’s claim to "have also corrected the pitch for each track, which was for the most part flat in varying degrees on previous Decca LP and CD transfers of the studio recordings".

Well, I shall have to admit that my comparisons are confined to the six Quilter pieces which (both arrangements and original songs) appear on a Decca compilation dedicated to Ireland, Quilter and Rubbra in their "British Music Collection", but the tale they tell is a pretty consistent one. At first, in the original Quilter pieces, I thought the difference in pitch so minimal that I would not have noticed it had it not been pointed out to me, but Obert-Thorn does say "in varying degrees" and in "Ye banks and braes" and "Drink to me only" the difference is quite startling; the Decca transfers are about a quarter of a tone down. Without bringing in a lot of expensive and sophisticated equipment I cannot actually check which of the two is at correct concert pitch, but my ear tells me that the Naxos transfer sounds right whereas the Decca gives the voice a doleful air. The colour is just not credible. So I see no reason to doubt that Obert-Thorn’s pitching is correct.

But aside from that, there is a considerable difference in quality, especially noticeable, perhaps, in "To daisies". In the Decca transfer the piano sound is dry and backward; with Naxos it has more bloom and presence. With Decca the voice may seem at first more focused, but after quite a short time it comes to have a metallic edge. It sounds shallow and artificial. With Naxos it may sound a little muzzier, though no more so than it would if you were sitting some way back in a hall listening to it. But it also has more depth. You tire of it less, for it envelops you rather than hits you, and causes the legend of the singer to relive more convincingly. So, taking these songs as a sample, there seems no doubt that Naxos is preferable. There is, by the way, the mystery of a seventh arrangement, "Down by the Salley Gardens", which appears on the Decca disc (duly down a quarter of a tone) as the work of Quilter, whereas it is here attributed to Herbert Hughes. Since it was recorded on the same day as another Hughes arrangement ("The Lover’s Curse") and the two came out back to back on the original 78 disc, I am sure that Hughes is correct, and I see that in October 1968 "Gramophone", reviewing the Ace of Clubs issue of these performances, gave the arranger as Hughes.

So much for the recordings. As for the music, and the performances, there is no getting away from the fact that the myth is beginning to show its age. This is very obvious in the folksong arrangements. These innocent tunes, dolled up for concert use, were immensely popular in their day, but it increasingly requires us to suspend our belief that halls-full of people around the country could listen to a range of mostly Northern dialects conscientiously sung exactly as they are written on the page in the most beautiful King’s English without seeing anything incongruous about it. The problem is that many of the arrangements are sufficiently simple and respectful for us not to forget that these are folksongs, and therefore our expectations from them are at loggerheads with what we actually get. Better, really, are the Quilter arrangements in which the composer appropriates the tune for his own ends and we can simply listen to it as an art song. Benjamin Britten could be expected to do something along these lines, of course, but he was ever one pursue a simple idea to dogmatic extremes and in "O waly, waly" the initial impression of stark originality gives way to monotony and sheer irritation. Constant Lambert came up with the famous dictum that the only thing you can do with a folksong is to play it again louder; Britten shows here that there are other things you can do, and worse ones.

But what of the actual art songs? Well, Kathleen Ferrier came at a midpoint in British singing history. Nowadays singers are much more international in their approach, they study a range of languages from their college days onwards, and they tend to apply a more bel canto approach to English song (and also to lieder), compared with the note-by-note method – wholly word-oriented – adopted by their predecessors. A good example of modern "international" singing of an English song is actually to be found on that same Decca disc, where Elly Ameling sings Quilter’s "Weep you no more". On the other hand, compared with a singer like Maggie Teyte, Ferrier was already half the way along that particular road, as Decca illustrate all too well by inserting Jennifer Vyvyan’s tragi-comic, Gilbert-and-Sullivan-style rendering of "Love’s Philosophy" in the middle of Ferrier’s group. So, had she been allotted more time, maybe she would have developed further along these lines.

What cannot be doubted is the richness and evenness of her timbre, the clarity (even when taken to excess) of her diction and the sense of engagement she always creates. I found her a little aggressive with Stanford’s "Fairy Lough" but possibly she was recorded too closely. She included this piece in a recital in Rome in 1951 and here, with a more delicately imaginative pianist (Giorgio Favaretto – a sort of Italian Gerald Moore) and a muzzier but more distant recording I was transported to the magic lough up in the hills in a way I am not on the Naxos recording (and never have been in its Decca transfers either). "Love is a Bable" also benefits from Favaretto’s delicacy in Rome. But "A Soft Day" (not sung in Rome) is plainly deeply felt, with exemplary treatment of the difficult "drips, drips, drips …" Frederick Stone sounds much more engaged by the remaining pieces and "Silent Noon" in particular, comes across powerfully. Quilter group are all impressive, once one has allowed for the regal approach. "Drink to me only", by the way, reveals a very slight chink in her technical armoury; some (not all ) of her A flats and B flats are very fractionally flat. It’s a treacherous zone for a low voice, since it is just below the break. Having noticed it once, I then started noticing it in other places too. And, before leaving Quilter, can I point out that "Over the mountains" is not an original composition but another arrangement (I have corrected the details above). Also, "Drink to me only" may be a traditional melody, but Quilter himself believed, and duly reported on the score, that it was by one Colonel Mellish.

On these lines, I must also complain that Malcolm Walker’s generally excellent note tells us that Roberton’s arrangements include "Crimond (Psalm 23)" and "All in an April evening", but the latter is an original composition. And Quilter and Stanford gave their works opus numbers (which I have duly reinstated) whereas Parry, except for a few early works, did not. And yet "Love is a bable" is here listed as op.152 no.3. As I understand it, somebody attempted to work out posthumously a list of opus numbers for Parry’s works, but I have never seen this list and it never caught on. The list of works in Jeremy Dibble’s study of the composer gives no opus numbers. And lastly, it is normal nowadays to list Bridge’s works with their H (Hindmarsh) number.

So, in conclusion, time is gradually taking its distance from the adored myth. Yet there is still so much that is beautiful here and Naxos’s transfers (as well as their price) provide a good reason to explore.

Mention of the Rome recital raises the issue that there exists, I have always understood, a certain body of Ferrier material in the archives of various European radio stations, not all of it duplicating her commercially recorded repertoire. While we must certainly be grateful for these improved transfers, it would be nice to think that this unissued material might become more generally available one day.

Christopher Howell

 

see also reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Em Marshall



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