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Dunelm Records

The Tend’rest Breast: Settings of women’s poetry
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
June; A song at parting; Wild cherry.
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Thy hand in mine; Where she lies asleep; Love went a-riding.
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Seven Sappho songs.
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Epitaph of Timas (Three Greek songs);
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
The advent; Hymn for a child (Two songs sacred and profane); Love and friendship;
Alastair KING (dates not known)
Nocturne; The moment; Spell to bring lost creatures home
Madeleine DRING (1923-1977)
Don’t play your sonata tonight, Mr. Humphries.
Montague PHILLIPS (1885-1969)
When April laughs; Hush’d is my lute; Sing, joyous bird.
Georgina Colwell (soprano), Nigel Foster (piano)
rec. Walton on Thames, 4-5 January 2005

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I’m not really sure whether a recital which groups together 20th century English songs setting women poets can really say anything especially meaningful about the nature of poetry written by women. However you might argue it, the argument is muddied on this disc by the inclusion of Ivor Gurney’s Seven Sappho Songs in which the poet sets Bliss Carman’s English poems after Sappho, and Bliss Carman is man. So perhaps we had better forget any didacticism and simply enjoy the music for its own sake.

The English parlour ballad lies in the background of many of the items here. Georgina Colwell starts with three songs by Roger Quilter, June, A Song at Parting and Wild Cherry and it is only in Wild Cherry with its flowing piano part, wonderfully realised by pianist Nigel Foster, that we get a hint of something less obvious. This sense of an English song rather than an Edwardian parlour ballad is what distinguishes Frank Bridge’s three songs; Thy Hand in Mine, Where she Lies Asleep and Love Went A-riding. Bridge manages to combine Quilter’s tunefulness with subtler qualities which hint at other musical worlds. In the best known of the three, Love Went A-Riding, Foster is infectiously disciplined in the lively piano part.

With Gurney’s Seven Sappho Songs we really enter the world of the English art song. Unfortunately Georgina Colwell does not seem entirely comfortable in Gurney’s more complex, chromatic songs. Perhaps this is the point where I ought to pause and consider more the rather distinctive nature of Georgina Colwell’s voice. Her virtues are many; she projects the words with a truly wonderful clarity, she sings with clear, focused tone with not too much intrusive vibrato. But she seems to have quite a big voice and the recording repeatedly hints at instability in the upper register. At times her tone quality reminded me of Heather Harper, but in the upper register the voice takes on a slightly harsh quality with mars some of these songs. It might be that much of this is down to the recording; after all large voices are notoriously difficult to capture.

In the Gurney settings I wanted a far gentler, caressing tone; the songs should sound more effortless. The result, though creditable and well projected, seems to miss the heart of these tricky, subtle songs. Many people will want the disc for this set alone as it is, I think, their only recording.

It is a shame that only one of Lennox Berkeley’s Three Greek Songs is included. Still, Epitaph for Timas is a complex chromatic piece with a lovely ending as the piano part evaporates. Unfortunately, as in the Gurney, Colwell does not sound completely comfortable.

The performers successfully capture the poetic melancholy of The Advent, one of John Ireland’s Two Sacred and Profane Songs. That the other song, Hymn for a Child, is rather more curious is almost certainly the fault of Ireland rather than the performers. Sylvia Townsend Warner’s lyrics seem to contain an element of irony which Ireland totally misses. After all, can you imagine Townsend Warner, a lesbian communist, writing totally seriously about Christ’s youth: just consider lines like ‘Speaking with bias/He reviewed Elias;/Said the dogs did well/Eating Jezebel’. They contain a satirical edge missing from the rather cloying setting. So we’ll pass quickly on to the third Ireland song, Love and Friendship, where Colwell and Foster beautifully capture the song’s insouciance.

Alastair King is a young composer who was new to me. His was the only European entry to reach the final of the 2001 Masterprize competition and he has quite an impressive catalogue of film credits. Colwell sings three charming songs setting poems by Kathleen Raine. King’s style is effortlessly melodic and though the songs are undoubtedly attractive I felt that he did not always plumb the depths of Kathleen Raine’s poems. This was particularly true of Spell to Bring Lost Creatures Home which he sets to a truly infectious waltz; a lovely tune which seems out of character for the poem.

Colwell and Foster follow this group with a single longer song by Madeleine Dring in which she sets her own words and gives a masterclass in how to set and successfully point up a comic text whilst retain a charming melodicism. Essentially a strophic waltz, Dring’s setting has echoes of Flanders and Swann and never compromises the comic/pathetic element of the text. For me this was the highlight of the set, especially as it showed of all of Colwell’s fine qualities without highlighting any of the problems which I mentioned earlier.

Finally a group of three charmingly light songs by Montague Phillips; again Colwell’s delivery is not as effortless as I would like but she conveys the fragile charm of these pieces.

This is a recital which will appeal to many simply by the nature of the composers represented and because it includes a significant song-cycle by Ivor Gurney. Georgina Colwell and her fine pianist, Nigel Foster, are wonderfully communicative but my reservations remain and I would advise anyone to listen first to see how they feel about the way that Colwell’s voice comes over on the disc.

Robert Hugill

see also Review by Philip Scowcroft


Dunelm Records


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