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Henry PURCELL (1659-1695)
Retir’d from any mortal’s sight [3:54]
Silvia, now your scorn give over [0:34]
I see she flies from me [2:27]
On the brow of Richmond Hill [2:02]
Thomas Augustine ARNE (1710-1778)
(William Shakespeare)
Blow, blow, thou winter wind [1:54]
When icicles hang by the wall [2:17]
Under the greenwood tree [2:09]
Where the bee sucks [2:00]
George MUNRO (?-1731)

My lovely Celia [2:28]
Rutland BOUGHTON (1878-1960)

Faery Song (from ‘The Immortal Hour’) [2:10]
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)

(A Shropshire Lad, A.E. Housman)
Loveliest of trees [2:46]
When I was one-and-twenty [1:30]
Look not in my eyes [2:43]
Bredon Hill [4:51]
Oh fair enough are sky and plain [2:54]
When the lad for longing sighs [1:45]
Think no more, lad [1:22]
The lads in their hundreds [2:27]
Is my team ploughing? [3:03]
On the idle hill of summer [3:50]
With rue my heart is laden [1:50)
Liza LEHMAN (1862-1918)

When’er a snowflake leaves the sky [2:55]
Amy WOODFORDE-FINDEN (1860-1919)

Pale hands I love [3:45]
Roger QUILTER (1877-1935)

(Shakespeare)
O mistress mine [1:37]
Come away death [2:55]
To Daises [2:15]
The lark in the clean air [2:39]
It was a lover and his lass [2:33]
Hey ho! The wind and the rain [1:44]
Go lovely rose [3:07]
Astra Desmond, contralto. [pianist not noted] Recorded 12, 14 June 1944 (1-4); John Heddle Nash, baritone. 28 January 1954 (5-8) and 28 April 1954 (24-27); Ernest Lush, piano. 28 January 1954 (5-8); Richard Lewis, tenor. 20 December 1948 (9, 10); John Cameron, baritone. 10-11 February 1954 and 16 August 1954 (11-21); Gerald Moore, piano. 10-11 February 1954 and 16 August 1954 (11-21); and 6 April 1952 (28, 29); Gwen Catley. 28 September 1951 (22); Alfred Piccaver. 1928 (23); Walter Midgley. 6 April 1952 (28, 29); Owen Brannigan. 1 February 1952 (30)
DUTTON VOCALION CDLX 7104 [74:31]

 

It never ceases to enthral me to hear historic recordings of singers (in particular) – such a world apart from the style and sound we are used to today. Many people find the older style inaccessible or embarrassingly over the top, yet as well as offering an historical insight, it also has a charm of its own.

This disc is a compilation of English song – ranging from composers such as Purcell and Arne at one end of the spectrum to Boughton and Quilter at the other. The performers are all familiar names, and were the stars of their day. The contralto Astra Desmond opens the disc with four Purcell songs. Although her impressive portamento gets too much after a while, and her voice comes across as very pressured, she is nonetheless delightfully expressive, and her clarity of diction is a joy to hear. John Heddle Nash follows this with four Shakespeare songs by Arne, accompanied by Ernest Lush. His is a rather harsh voice, and his singing (as the accompaniment!) just slightly matter-of-fact and plodding in the first song, Blow Blow thou Winter Wind. I also found the way he sings "enemy" in Under the Greenwood Tree rather unmusical. Yet his enunciation is, like Desmond, faultless, and the last of his songs, Where the bee Sucks, is a true gem – a gorgeous setting that is great fun and works very well indeed – worth hearing for the song if not necessarily the performance! Nash also performs four Quilter songs later on – again Shakespeare settings. One feels that he captures the spirit of these much better than he does the Arne. There is none of the stilted, slightly emotion-less quality that pervades the Arne songs – rather, he endows these songs with true feeling and passion – listen, for example, to his gorgeously heart-felt "weep" in Come Away Death. He is a touch heavy in It was a love and his Lass and the words "lovers love the springtime" in particular could do with a little more joy and lightness, but this does not in any way mar the song, and, as in O Mistress Mine, his pronunciation is strikingly beautiful.

The tenor Richard Lewis sings My Lovely Celia by George Munro (not by Lane Wilson, as the sleeve-notes claim – Wilson did not, as far as I am aware, set the lovely Celia words to music) and the Faery Song from Boughton’s then extremely (and justly!) popular "music drama" The Immortal Hour. Both of these are pleasantly and sensitively sung, although I found the hiss of the 1948 recording rather irritatingly intrusive (curiously enough, more so than in Desmond’s Purcell recording of four years earlier).

Another famous baritone, John Cameron, follows the Boughton with Butterworth’s Shropshire lad. His voice is beautifully rich and dark and he brings out the nuances of the songs well although a little more yearning and wistfulness in "Oh, tis true, tis true" in When I was One and Twenty wouldn’t have gone amiss. His is generally a sensitive approach to the songs – as demonstrated well in the moments of delicacy that he captures in The Lads in their Hundreds. Similarly, in Is my Team Ploughing, he easily rivals many contemporary singers in his excellent contrast between the live man and the dead, in what is a deeply moving and effective performance. Bredon is beautifully performed, although it could be a little more chilling, with more anguish in the lines "went to church alone", "would not wait for me" and "O noisy bells be dumb!" Both On the Idle Hill of Summer and Think no More Lad show off his big, bold baritone, and he seems to revel in these. As a general rule, this is impressive singing, with a lovely tone, well paced, and performed with great feeling. In When I was One and Twenty, Cameron exemplifies one characteristic of the style of his day – a great freedom in rhythm – something that is seen too much as a flaw today and that is sacrificed at the altar of exactitude, with expressiveness and sensitivity towards the music, and the composer’s poetic intent, going up in flames with it. Admittedly we would not wish the performers to have too much rhythmic laxity, but a little liberality allows artists to transmit the meaning of the song more fully. Gerald Moore provides masterly accompaniment to these songs – clear, compelling and sympathetic.

Gwen Catley (a singer already well represented in the Dutton catalogue) has only one song – Lehman’s When ’ere a Snowflake Leaves the Sky – which she communicates well with her rather dated and occasionally, shrill, but generally sweet and richly operatic voice. Woodeforde-Finden’s Pale Hands I Love follows, performed by Alfred Piccaver – unfortunately both a song and a style that realise a great amount of the criticism that is directed at English song and at historic recordings by sceptics. Like the Lehman, this is an over-sentimental song, and this is a rendition that makes far too much use of vibrato and of slowly sweeping, swooping, scooping phrases, with Piccaver often lagging far behind the hapless (and anonymous) accompanist!

Walter Midgley presents two further Quilter songs, with Gerald Moore again at the piano, displaying to possibly too great an extent the characteristic of freedom of rhythm! Unfortunately, his tuning is sometimes slightly out in To Daises – rather painful given the impressive volume that he seemingly so effortlessly musters. In both songs Midgley gives the impression of concentrating far too much on the sound he belts out rather than the meaning of the words – they are not terribly sensitively sung.

Owen Brannigan concludes the disc with a final Quilter song, The Lark in the Clear Air. He has an incredibly warm and enveloping voice – deep, rich and romantic, and provides a lovely ending to the disc.

This is a fascinating disc, and includes some wonderful performances – not least Nash’s Quilter songs and Cameron’s Butterworth. The sound is, as a general rule, remarkably good, and, with one of two exceptions, does not at all detract. The standard of singing varies wildly - some singers do not perform the songs very musically, some are guilty of a lack of understanding for the words – and the excessive vibrato and remarkable disregard for written rhythms and tempo can take some getting used to! However, I would definitely recommend this disc for both historical reasons, and for those songs here that really are gems – to any lover of English music, or to anyone interested in historical recordings, or the singers featured. It is, in any case, good to see Dutton keeping up their excellent work and providing us with recordings to which we would otherwise regrettably have no access.

Em Marshall

Footnote

Note from Christopher Howell

The title information at the head of Em Marshall's review of this disc gives no mention of the pianist in the four Purcell songs sung by Astra Desmond. This singer certainly recorded a number of Purcell songs in the 1940s for Decca with Harold Craxton at the piano - a rather rare opportunity to hear in action the great accompanist of the immediate pre-Moore period. Is it possible to confirm that these are the recordings in question? (If Dutton did not supply this information on the disc, could they comment?)

Dutton were unable to comment [LM]

Note from Jonathan Woolf

According to Michael Smith's Decca Discography (privately published, 1999)Craxton was indeed the accompanist on the four Purcell songs - Retir'd from..., Silvia, I See She Flies Me, and The Brow of Richmond Hill. The additional Desmond-Craxton recordings were M549, M550, M569 and K1098. Incidentally Desmond made a number of unissued Decca sides at around this time - Bridge and Bax (arranged) with Gerald Moore and Wolf songs with Phyllis Spurr. Re Craxton CH might be aware that he made recordings with Felix Salmond (Columbia,1920)and with Clara Butt (Columbia, 1918)




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