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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Songs by Michael Head and Friends
Michael HEAD (1900-1976)
Sweet chance; O to be in England; Fox Gloves; Green Rain; A piper; A green cornfield; Ships of Arcady; Beloved; A blackbird singing; Nocturne; Dear delight; You shall not go a-Maying; Love’s lament for comely grace; Love me not; O let no star; The twins; A summer idyll; Slumber song of the Madonna; When sweet Ann sings
David BEDNALL (b. 1979)
England; First sight of her and after
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
King David
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Down by the Salley Gardens; Sleep
Richard Rowntree (tenor)
David Bednall (piano)
rec. Wells Cathedral School, 20-22 October 2004. DDD
LAMMAS LAMM179D [71:55]
 


In recent years there have been no major recorded collections of Michael Head’s songs. Lammas now put this right and I hope they will go on to tackle C.W Orr and Margaret Wegener.
 
Richard Rowntree has a pastel-inflected, fragile, light-toned tenor something in the manner of Ian Partridge though not his equal. This should suit these too rarely encountered poetic blooms by Michael Head. The enunciation is excellent but breath control can be fallible. A slight choke in the voice infrequently betrays the strain these songs put on his voice.
 
Michael Head was born in Eastbourne on 28 January 1900. His education was interrupted by call-up in 1918. The next year saw Boosey & Hawkes publishing four songs Over the Rim of the Moon. This was also the same year in which he began studying with John Ireland. Ireland was a close associate of Alan Bush. Head married Bush’s sister Nancy who also became his librettist for a series of small-scale opera projects. In 1927 Head became professor of Piano at the RAM, a position he retained until retirement in 1975. He became well known as a broadcaster and performer of his own songs from 1924 onwards often accompanying himself in his own songs. He died in Cape Town from a sudden illness on 24 August 1976.
 
The pianist David Bednall takes his role with notable artistry and is pliant to Rowntree in the shaping of Head’s gently lyrical songs. These are not all simple melodics. For example there’s darkness in the bell references in Foxgloves to the words of Mary Webb and also in the quiet detonations of the Rossetti setting of Love’s Lament. The latter has an untypical protesting tone that I associate with Havergal Brian’s songs. Green Rain – again setting Mary Webb – inhabits a world not far distant from the mildew of Warlock’s Along the Stream. Bednall lovingly evokes the subtle raindrop imagery. By contrast there is the glancing and pointed delight of A Piper – recently heard by me on Janet Baker’s 1962 English song anthology newly reissued on Regis. A troubadour sweetness is accorded to A Green Cornfield, to Love not me for comely grace and to the masterly When Sweet Ann Sings with its gracefully rounded refrain. These are most lovingly shaped by Rowntree. The warm hymning of the English countryside continues in the slightly Delian England to words by de la Mare. The four songs of Over the Rim of the Moon date as a set from 1919. Good to hear them as a set rather than excerpted. They range from the dreamy silvery tintinnabulation of The Ships of Arcady, the chiming forthright Beloved which puts considerable stress on Rowntree with the melodic line falling across the bar lines to the elusive moody The Rim of the Moon (Nocturne). Many Head songs have a distinctive signature – a mix of pastoral warmth, serenade and soft melancholy – and you can hear it in full play in Dear Delight and in slight measure in A Slumber Song, You Shall not go a-Maying and in A Summer Idyll where aestival warmth holds sway.
 
David Bednall’s Thomas Hardy setting rocks and tolls carrying a rising dramatic discharge. This is not that far removed from Head though perhaps more Pierrot-expressionist than anything the older composer wrote. Howells’ King David was also on that Regis Janet Baker disc. This beautiful turmoil-stilling song is given an engaging performance. The disc ends with two Gurney songs: Down by the Salley Gardens and Sleep which are both most sensitively done.
 
The poems are printed in the booklet but Beloved is tr. 10; not tr. 11. They are correctly listed on the reverse of the case but in  wrong sequence in the poem listing. The booklet omits the words of waggish The Twins.
 
There is room in the catalogue for many more Michael Head projects. I hope someone in the family might permit the issue of Head accompanying himself of which there must be many archive tapes as well as the old Onslo LP ART-51-I. We also need recordings of such fine songs as The Estuary, Echo Valley and On the Wings of the Wind. Then there’s the late A Cornish Song-cycle superbly premiered on radio by Wendy Eathorne with Geoffrey Pratley in 1976.  Meantime I hope that Lammas, Rowntree and Bednall will continue their exploration and next time have the confidence to let us have an all-Head selection.
 
Rob Barnett
 

 



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