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
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.
see also Review
by Philip Scowcroft