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Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
The Complete Quilter Songbook Vol. 1
see end of review for full listing
Mark Stone (baritone)/Stephen Barlow (piano)
Rec. 5-6 December 2005, 3-4 July 2006, The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex
English Texts included
SONY BMG 88697 139962 [75:47 + 73:48]



The seventy-one songs collected here represent the first volume in a projected two-volume set of all Quilter’s songs. The songs are not presented chronologically. Instead a different, and interesting, approach has been taken. In her authoritative booklet note, Quilter’s biographer, Valerie Langfield, explains that within the overall Quilter sound he responds in different ways to different poets and so, for example, there’s a definite “Shakespeare” sound and a “Blake” sound. Thus the decision has been taken to place his settings of a particular poet in close proximity to each other. In consequence this first volume includes 18 settings by Shakespeare; 4 settings by Ernest Dowson (1867-1900); and 8 by Shelley (1792-1822). Though several other poets are represented in the anthology it will be seen that these poets, and Shakespeare in particular, have the lion’s share. As a generalisation, it seems to me that the best poetry brought out the best music in Quilter; thus the Shakespeare and Shelley settings strike me as the finest songs in this set.
 
Roger Quilter was essentially a miniaturist and art songs were, by some distance, the most significant part of his creative output. I mentioned earlier that the best words brought out the best music in him, as is often the case with composers. I wouldn’t say that he had the same discerning eye for a text that, say, Gerald Finzi or Ivor Gurney possessed and, frankly, some of the poetry included in these settings is pretty second rate. Also Quilter’s compositional gifts were not as pronounced as several other noted English song writers. He doesn’t really plumb the depths in the way that Finzi, Gurney or several others did and quite often one finds that another composer has set the same text more effectively. To give but just one example. Valerie Langfield avers that Quilter’s setting of Joseph Campbell’s I will go with my father a-ploughing (Op. 22, No 2) “has more of the swing of a scythe about it” than Gurney’s. That may be so, but in my view Quilter’s rather comfortable, easy-going setting can’t hold a candle to Gurney’s more headstrong version.
 
But though many of Quilter’s settings have their limitations they are far from negligible and, though fashions change, the best of them have retained a very rightful place in the affections of audiences and performers. They have an easy melodic charm and they fall gratefully on the ear. Furthermore, they are almost invariably well written, avoiding outlandish demands on either the singer or the pianist – though they are not easy to perform well. Above all, they entertain and there’s a lot to be said for that.
 
Groups of Quilter’s songs crop up regularly in recitals and most of the best known ones at least are quite well represented on CD, though generally they appear as part of mixed programmes. I know of relatively few discs entirely devoted to his songs though one that came my way a few years ago was a fine one by tenor John Mark Ainsley with Malcolm Martineau (Hyperion CDA66878). Now baritone Mark Stone enters the lists and I believe that he will also be the singer on the follow-up pair of discs.
 
My colleague Anne Ozorio recently reviewed favourably a recital appearance by Stone at the Oxford Lieder Festival. He included a Quilter group in that programme and Anne praised in particular the fact that he “approached the songs with simple directness, suited to their nature.”  On the evidence of what we hear on these discs I’d largely concur with that verdict. However, Anne drew attention to Stone’s powerful baritone and there were times when I felt that he risked overpowering some of the songs.
 
However, that last comment refers as much to tempo and style as to strength of voice. When I heard Stone’s performance of Come away, death (Op. 6, No 1) it sounded a bit on the heavy side. Bring down the Ainsley version from the shelf and you hear the difference straightaway. Of course, Ainsley possesses the lighter voice anyway. But there’s more to it than that. He adopts a more flowing tempo, taking 2:35 against Stone’s 3:23 and his whole touch on the song is lighter, easier, more natural – and the same applies to Malcolm Martineau’s accompaniment as compared with Stephen Barlow’s. I prefer Ainsley’s approach, beside which Stone’s risks sounding a touch lugubrious. However, I must add at once that on its own terms Stone’s is a good performance and some collectors may prefer a touch more vocal weight.
 
I mentioned competition from other composers. For me, Gerald Finzi’s setting of Fear no more the heat o’ the sun is, quite simply, one of the greatest of all English art songs. Though Quilter’s version (Op. 23, No 1) can’t match it he still produces a very satisfying and eloquent setting. It is in such a song that Mark Stone’s full tone comes right into its own. In fact, he’s successful in all five of the songs that constitute Op. 23. He’s merry and lively in Under the Greenwood Tree and conveys the easy charm of It was a lover and his lass engagingly.
 
Another Shakespeare setting, How should I your true love know (Op. 26, No. 3), is a fine song, shot through with melancholy. Once again, for me it’s Ainsley that best brings out the true ambience and spirit of this song. The sense of gentle regret he conveys is preferable to Stone’s more evidently grief stricken approach.
 
I wasn’t surprised to find Non nobis, Domine well suited to Stone’s gifts. Kipling’s words may strike us as rather vainglorious these days but with his fine, noble tune Quilter lifts up the words. It sounds like a School Song from an English Public School but, in fact, it isn’t. It was written as a choral piece for an event called the Pageant of Parliament, which was held in London’s Royal Albert Hall in 1934. Eleven years later Quilter tried to repeat the trick with Hymn for Victory. A.P. Herbert’s words read just as embarrassingly today as do Kipling’s but, sadly, Quilter couldn’t quite find a comparable tune to disguise the shortcomings of the text.
 
Disc Two opens with three of Quilter’s best songs, the group that makes up Op. 3. In the Shelley setting, Love’s Philosophy, Stone conveys the eagerness very well and I also greatly enjoyed his tone and his fine legato in Now sleeps the crimson petal. He also excels in Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, the set that includes one of Quilter’s greatest inspirations, Fair House of Joy.
 
In a completely different vein is An old carol (Op. 25, No. 3), which turns out to be I sing of a maiden. This is a setting of endearing simplicity and both performers respond very well. I don’t feel they’re quite as successful with another song in the same set, Shelley’s Music when soft voices die (Op. 25, No. 5). This song is a little gem but Stone is too slow. Though his tone is good he doesn’t capture the essential lightness of touch, something that John Mark Ainsley gets just right. Stone takes 2:05 over this miniature whereas Ainsley requires only 1:26 yet doesn’t short change his listener.
 
Mark Stones and Stephen Barlow are good advocates of Quilter’s songs – and sometimes much more than that. I don’t think anyone buying this set will be seriously disappointed and I for one look forward to the companion volume in due course. However, I think a trick has been missed here in entrusting all the songs to one singer. There is more to be found in these songs that a single singer can capture, I’d suggest. One thinks of the various Hyperion anthologies of complete songs by particular composers. So far as I can remember not one such collection was the preserve of a single singer. Instead different singers and different types of voice were engaged to bring out different facets of a composer’s art. Had a similar approach been adopted here I think the rewards would have been even greater.
 
But it would be completely wrong – and unfair – to end on a negative note. There is a great deal to enjoy on this pair of discs. Mark Stone possesses a good, pleasing voice, which he uses with intelligence and good taste. Though the texts are provided they are almost superfluous for his diction is consistently excellent. And Stone is to be congratulated also for not confining himself to the popular Quilter songs but for ranging widely and giving us a survey that includes a good deal of much less familiar material. Throughout a substantial programme he receives excellent support from Stephen Barlow.
 
This pair of discs will give a great deal of pleasure and they should be warmly welcomed by all enthusiasts for English song. In looking forward to the second volume can I put in a plea that someone will give us a comparable survey of the songs of Michael Head?
 
John Quinn

Full listing
A London Spring (1904) [1:35]
Four Child Songs, Op. 5 (1904/1945) [6:41]
Three Shakespeare Songs, Op. 6 [7:40]
Songs of Sorrow, Op. 10 (1904-6) [11:04]
‘Tis Saint Valentine’s Day [1:11]
Three Pastoral Songs, Op. 22 [7:01]
Five Shakespeare Songs, Op. 23 [9:50]
Two Songs, Op. 26 [5:06]
Four Shakespeare songs, Op. 30 [7:08]
Non nobis, Domine (1934) [2:41]
Come Lady-Dat [1:56]
Two Shakespeare Songs, Op. 32 [4:09]
Trollie Lollie Laughter [1:57]
Hark! Hark” the Lark [1:04]
Come Unto These Yellow Sands [2:04]
Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred [1:58]
A Song at Parting [2:30]
Three Songs, Op. 3 [6:05]
June [1:54]
Seven Elizabethan Lyrics, Op. 12 (1908) [14:07]
Four Songs, Op. 14 [7:50]
Three Songs, Op. 15 [5:13]
Spring Is at the Door, Op, 18 (IV) [1:55]
Two September Songs, Op. 18 (V-VI) [4:08]
Six Songs, Op. 25 [12:25]
I Arise from Dreams of Thee, Op. 29 (1929) [5:08]
Music and Moonlight [2:24]
Wild Cherry [1:19]
Far, Far Away [2:20]
Drooping Wings (1942) [2:30]
Hymn for Victory (1945) [2:38]
One Word Is Too Often Profaned [1:28]
Music [2:06]

 


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