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Songs by Michael Head and Friends
Michael HEAD (1900-1976)
1. Sweet chance [2.02]; 2. O to be in England [3.44]; 3. Fox Gloves [2.25]; 4. Green Rain [3.18]; 5. A piper [1.29]; 6. A green cornfield [2.17]
David BEDNALL (b. 1979)
7. England [4.10]; 8. First sight of her and after [3.33]
Michael HEAD
9. Ships of Arkady [3.37]; 10. Beloved [1.51]; 11. A blackbird singing [2.35]; 12. Nocturne [4.13]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
13. King David [4.40]
Michael HEAD
14. Dear delight [3.03]; 15. You shall not go a-Maying [3.19]; 16. Love’s lament for comely grace [3.11]; 17. Love me not [3.19]; 18. O let no star [2.30]; 19. The twins [2.18]; 20. A summer idyll [2.30]; 21. Slumber song of the Madonna [2.47]; 22. When sweet Ann sings [2.44]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
23. Down by the Salley Gardens [2.55]; 24. Sleep [3.16]
Richard Rowntree (tenor); David Bednall (piano)
rec. Wells Cathedral School, 20-21 October 2004. DDD
LAMMAS LAMM179D [71.55]

Michael Head belongs to that breed of English composer much loved by singers at Eisteddfodau, featuring perhaps in the odd recital here and there, but who is otherwise largely forgotten. The reason is a mystery; perhaps it is because despite his propensity for putting music to words (over 120 songs) unlike John Ireland with Sea Fever or George Butterworth with his song-cycle A Shropshire Lad, Head never had a ‘hit’ song. In fact, I’d never before come across an album devoted almost entirely to his songs. In that regard, both tenor Richard Rowntree and his accompanist David Bednall are to be commended for their initiative.
The choice of songs on this disc is interesting too. Except for Ships of Arkady (also spelt Arcady) the songs are new to me. I am more accustomed to the likes of Money O!, Sweethearts and Wives and Limehouse Reach which I have sung at singing competitions. I am not, by any stretch of the imagination a Michael Head expert.
That Head creates a certain ambience with his songs is undeniable. This is noticeable in his chromatic settings of Seamus O’Sullivan’s The Piper and Francis Ledwidge’s Nocturne. The former has an accompaniment reminiscent of twinkling and lilting feet skipping to the beat of a piper when ‘all the world went gay, went gay for half an hour in the streets today’ while the latter is a sigh of celestial proportions set over a bed of earthbound chords.
David Bednall himself has inserted a couple of his own compositions in this album including Walter de la Mare’s patriotic England which was not completed until the day it was recorded. His style evokes echoes of other composers especially his Vaughan Williams’- inspired setting of Thomas Hardy’s First sight of her and after. Rowntree’s interpretation of England, incidentally, is one of the best in this album.
Also impressive is Ivor Gurney’s Sleep, mainly because Rowntree allows his voice to float through the words creating wisps of pure sound as in a dream sequence. His high notes sound mature too. Which is not the case at all times. The final notes in Love not me for comely grace are unconvincing and at times his voice sounds gravelly and tired especially in You shall not go a-Maying. Plus, here and there, Rowntree’s voice is drowned by the accompaniment. This is particularly evident in the first few songs.
Rowntree’s voice is sweet and uncomplicated. But it is a small voice, principally more treble than bass, which is better suited to singing in vaulted churches. It is not full-bodied yet, but perhaps in time it will be. His diction needs tweaking too.
The lyrics to all the songs are well set out in the cover notes but, inexplicably, the words of O let no star and The twins are missing. Much as I enjoy hearing a disc of Michael Head’s music it is slightly over-killing the medium to expect anyone with no particular interest in British Art songs to sit through more than an hour of his music sung by the same singer throughout. It would have made more sense to have employed a different registered voice - a baritone and/or a soprano - to share in this feast of Head’s music.
Randolph Magri-Overend

see also review by Rob Barnett




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