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Warís Embers. A legacy of songs by composers who perished or suffered in World War I
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Only a man harrowing clods SV [4:08]; Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) The twa corbies MG [4:52]; Black Stitchel MG [2:21]; Blaweary MG [1:30]; The fiddler of Dooney MG [1:57]; Goodnight to the meadow MG [1:21]; The ship MG [2:26]; The boat is chafing MG [1:19]; Cathleen ni Houlihan MG [2:54]; Edward, Edward MG [6:01]; The night of Trafalgar MG [2:18]; Thou didst delight my eyes MG [3:23]; To violets MG [1:05]; Last hours MG [4:52]; Ernest FARRAR (1885-1918) The wanderer's song SV [2:56]; Silent noon SV [3:51]; The roadside fire SV [1:57]; Brittany SV [1:47]; Come you, Mary SV [0:58]; Who would shepherd pipes SV [1:45]; W Denis BROWNE (1888-1915) Arabia MH [5:24]; Diaphenia MH [2:05]; Epitaph on Salathiel Pavy MH [4:41]; To Gratiana dancing and singing MH [4:17]; Frederick KELLY (1881-1916) Shall I compare thee? SV [3:27]; George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916) Requiescat SV.
Michael George (bass) MG; Martyn Hill (tenor) MH; Stephen Varcoe (baritone) SV
Clifford Benson (piano)
rec. 21-23 April 1987. Location unspecified. AAD
A full track listing is given at the end of this review
Recording sponsored by The Finzi Trust
HYPERION HELIOS CDH55237

 

This is a most welcome reissue. Pleasure at the reappearance of these recordings is tempered mildly by the realisation that this collection of twenty-six songs represents just over half of the original set, issued under the same title. The original two-disc set, issued in 1988, contained forty-one songs so fifteen, all by Gurney, have been omitted. That accounts for some forty minutes of music left out from the original set. Since that would make for a very ungenerous CD I wonder if the remaining songs are fated not to be reissued; I do hope not. In the meantime, we must be grateful that a new generation of collectors can enjoy this very generous selection. While the excision of the Gurney songs is regrettable his songs are pretty well known whereas these songs by his peers are not for the most part so Hyperionís editorial judgement is sound.

"Warís Embers" is a most evocative title. It was the title given by Gurney to a collection of his own poems that he published in 1919. "Warís Waste" would have been just as accurate a title for the CD for, as youíll guess from the dates of the composers, four out of the six met a grossly premature end in the carnage of the First World War. Another, Gurney, was so physically and mentally traumatised by his wartime experiences that he was a broken man who also died far too young. Only Finzi, who was too young, was spared active service and lived on to enjoy the fruits of peace.

Finziís Only a man harrowing clods opens the disc. Itís, perhaps inevitably, a Hardy setting and itís a rather gaunt song, which Stephen Varcoe does very well. Finzi provides a link with Ernest Farrar. It was while Farrar was organist of Harrogate Parish Church (1912-15) that he became, briefly, Finziís first composition teacher. Farrar left Harrogate to enlist but it appears from the liner-note that he wasnít sent to France until September 1918. He survived just ten days. Stephen Varcoe sings the two groups of Farrar songs on this disc. The first trio comprises his Vagabond Songs, Op. 10, which date from around 1908. Two of these, Silent Noon and The Roadside Fire, come into direct competition with settings by Vaughan Williams. Frankly, neither Farrar setting is the equal of RVWís versions but the Vagabond Songs are still well worth hearing. Itís notable that in Silent Noon Farrarís music bears quite a kinship to RVWís at the passage beginning ĎO clasp we to our hearts. The other group by Farrar, again sung by Varcoe, is less memorable. The songs are rather conventional Ė as Michael Hurd observes in his notes: "elegant, charming and unpretentious Ė pleasant fodder for the amateur and the drawing room". However, Stephen Varcoe serves them well.

He also sings the sole song by the Australian-born Frederick Kelly. His Who would shepherd pipes is a rather immature piece, in which the piano part rather draws attention away from the vocal line. Much more substantial fare is provided by Denis Browne. The best of his small output of songs is included here. Arabia is a complex and ambitious song, which Martyn Hill sings with sensitivity. Heís good, too, in the easeful Diaphenia. Best of all is To Gratiana dancing and singing, a minor masterpiece. Here the singer weaves a wide-ranging line over a stately accompaniment, which is like a slow galliard. Hill gives a very fine account of it though I retain a sneaking preference for Ian Bostridgeís recording (EMI).

Like Finzi, George Butterworth is represented by only one song. Requiescat is a relatively early piece, dating from 1911. Itís not one of his best-known songs but it deserves to be. Itís subtle and deep, reminding us that of all the composers cut down in the slaughter of France, Butterworth promised the most. An incalculable loss to English music. Stephen Varcoe sings this restrained, eloquent song most expressively.

The remainder of the disc is devoted to Gurney. The more I hear his songs the more I believe that he was one of the very finest of all English song composers of the twentieth century. Indeed, I think itís possible to advance an argument that he was the finest of them all. His melodic gifts were great and he had a poetís eye for a text to set Sadly, some of the finest of his songs that were included in the original release, have been excluded here and one regrets the loss of In Flanders and, above all, the magnificent Sleep, not least because Martyn Hill sang it outstandingly well in the original collection. I also think itís rather regrettable that Severn Meadows was omitted, not just because itís a wonderful song but because, oddly, itís the only Gurney setting of one of his own poems.

However, what we do have here is very satisfying indeed, both as music and as performances. All the Gurney settings are entrusted to Michael George, who quite clearly has a great empathy for the music. I enjoyed his singing of these songs very much indeed. In particular, thereís a fine, dark performance of The twa corbies, balanced a little later by a sensitive account of the touching Goodnight to the meadow. He does the dramatic, extended ballad, Edward, Edward, powerfully and is equally splendid in The night of Trafalgar. Thou didst delight my eyes is a truly marvellous creation, full of aching regret. For me itís Gurney at his finest and Michael George gives a deeply satisfying account of it. Finally, we hear a nicely contrasted pairing. First thereís the gentle innocence of To violets after which comes Last Hours. This is a most atmospheric song and George conveys the otherworldly sadness of it extremely well. Clifford Benson, a splendid pianist throughout the recital, places the strange, chilly chords of Gurneyís accompaniment quite beautifully.

This is a very fine and attractive CD. The songs are in the finest English tradition and without exception they are splendidly sung by three singers who are fully inside the idiom. The documentation, in English only, is excellent. All the texts are supplied and the authoritative essay by Gurneyís biographer, Michael Hurd, has been retained, with one minor modification, from the original set. The recorded sound is very pleasing.

This is a self-recommending issue to all lovers of the treasury that is the English song repertory. Anyone who missed the original release should hasten to snap up this excellent bargain. I do hope that Hyperion will find a way of reissuing the remaining material.

John Quinn

 



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