This must be one of the earliest recordings
that The Songmakers’ Almanac made for
Hyperion; the group was founded by Graham
Johnson in 1976. Nowadays a running
time of less than fifty minutes looks
decidedly short measure but it must
be remembered that the recital first
appeared on LP. In the twenty years
or so since its initial release we’ve
grown used to Graham Johnson’s enterprising
and wide-ranging programmes of which,
with hindsight, this one proved to be
typical. How does one man know so much
about the song repertoire, especially
its more recherché elements?
We’ve also become accustomed to his
informative and entertaining notes.
By his standards this fairly early example
is rather on the short side but it’s
still elegantly and enthusiastically
written and adds significantly to one’s
Though this is a Songmakers’
Almanac release the other three founder
singing members have very little to
do. The programme is a showcase for
Anthony Rolfe Johnson, always welcome.
The disc opens with a Rossini duet for
Felicity Lott and Ann Murray. This is
irresistibly introduced by Johnson at
the piano and then his singers are red-blooded
Italian ladies to a tee, singing to
a gondolier who is participating in
the annual Venetian regatta. In a typically
lively passage in his notes Johnson
writes thus: "The two ladies in
Rossini’s duet are encouraging Tonio
(appropriately named for this disc)
to row to victory in this ‘puppet-show’
boat race. It is thus that Anthony Rolfe
Johnson is introduced to centre-stage
for the remainder of the recital."
Some introduction! Some introducers!
Almost all the remaining
items are ideally suited to Rolfe Johnson,
heard here in his early vocal prime.
Not all the material is of the standard
of, say, Schubert’s Gondelfahrer
but the rarities are always of interest.
I’d never heard of Adolf Jensen and
I’m afraid I can’t shed any more light
on either him or on his music. Nowadays
Johnson’s notes would surely include
much useful information about Jensen
but this is "early Johnson"
and pretty much all that he vouchsafes
is that Jensen was a disciple of Wagner
and Schumann. No matter, the songs are
charming if fairly slight and Rolfe
Johnson sings them well. The song by
Taneyev, also new to me, contains an
important part for mandolin - in lieu
of a balalaika - and the instrument
adds a welcome and fascinatingly different
The second Rossini
item, I marinai, is a duet for
tenor and baritone. It’s actually one
of Les soirées musicales,
though you have to hunt for that bit
of information in the booklet. It is
rather dramatic though I can’t pretend
it was my favourite item on the disc.
It’s dispatched with great relish by
all three performers here though Rolfe
Johnson does sound slightly strained
by one or two very high, loud notes
towards the end – but, after all, he’s
never pretended to be an Italian opera
He’s on much happier
territory with the French items that
provide the remainder of the programme.
The pieces by Gounod and Massenet are
charmingly done. The song by Fauré
is an early one but even at the outset
of his career he plumbed greater depths
than either of his afore-mentioned countrymen.
The concluding selection
is a cycle of six songs in Venetian
dialect by Reynaldo Hahn. As Graham
Johnson observes, these songs give us
the Venice of the belle époque.
Bizarrely, it seems that Hahn actually
gave the first performance of this little
cycle on the Venetian canals! He and
his piano, on which he accompanied himself,
were in one gondola (presumably a suitably
large one) and the audience clustered
round in other boats. Obviously on this
occasion Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham
Johnson were on terra firma.
They give a winning reading of these
songs. I was especially taken with the
second one, La barcheta in which
Rolfe Johnson catches beautifully the
courtly ardour of the man singing to
his beloved. At the end of each stanza
there’s a lovely, long melismatic "Ah"
which imparts a wonderful sense of longing.
Rolfe Johnson is in splendid form for
this song, singing with honeyed tone
and just the right degree of gentle
but open-throated passion. In the last
of the set Felicity Lott and Richard
Jackson make another fleeting but welcome
appearance to sing with him.
Anthony Rolfe Johnson
is a singer who I’ve long admired and
here he’s on excellent form throughout.
He gives intelligent, civilised performances
and produces some most mellifluous sounds.
As ever, Graham Johnson is a splendidly
perceptive partner. The recorded sound
is very pleasing and balances voice
and piano very well, I think. The full
texts of the songs are provided though
only an English translation is supplied.
The notes, however, are also in French
This is a most enjoyable
disc and its return to the catalogue,
particularly at the Helios price is
to be welcomed most warmly.