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The Dark Pastoral - Songs and Poetry from World War One
Songs
William Denis BROWNE (1888-1915)
To Gratiana [4:06]; Had I the Heaven's embroidered cloths [2:28]; Dream Tryst [3:47]; Diaphenia [2:23]; The Isle of Lost Dreams [3:58]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
By a Bierside [4:35]; Severn Meadows [2:23]; In Flanders [3:07]; Even Such is Time [2:55]; On Wenlock Edge [2:48]; The Ghost [3:33]; Tarentella [3:16]
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962)
Threshold [2:21]; A winter-night Idyll [1:33]; A Woodland Dell [1:27]; Seascape [1:28]; Gentle Lady [1:46]; Dear Heart [1:37]; O cool is the Valley [0:59]; All day I hear the noise of waters [1:29]; I hear an army [1:29]; When thou art Dead [3:39];
Spoken verse
William Denis BROWNE (1888-1915)
To Rupert Brooke [2:18]
Rupert Chawner BROOKE (1887-1915)
Safety [1:03]; Kindliness [2:08]
Edward THOMAS (1878-1917)
Lights out [1:16]
Charlotte Mary MEW (1869-1928)
May 1915, June 1915 [1:36]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) To His Love [0:47]; Watching Music [4:51]
Alfred Edward HOUSEMAN (1859-1936)
Bredon Hill [1:28]
Edmund Charles BLUNDEN (1896-1974)
The Midnight Skaters [1:02]
James Augustine Aloysius JOYCE (1882-1941)
Love came to us [0:29]
Thomas HARDY (1840-1928)
The Darkling Thrush [1:30]
Vera Mary BRITTAIN (1893-1970)
Perhaps [1:02]
Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)
Simon Russell Beale (narrator)
rec. 29 October-1 November 2007, (20 October 2007 Simon Russell Beale); St. Silas the Martyr, St. Silas Place, Kentish Town, London, England. DDD
ALTARA CLASSICS ALT1035 [76:46]
Experience Classicsonline

This is a fascinating project by the Altara Classics label to intersperse the reciting of poetry with songs. The idea is not by any means original. The BBC Radio 3 programme Words & Music uses a similar approach to music and poetry and this works extremely well. We are informed in the booklet notes that the release includes previously unheard or unpublished songs but we are not told which. If there are world première recordings it seems a shame not to highlight them.
 
Titled The Dark Pastoral, the programme of songs from composers Denis Browne, Gurney and Goossens and poetry is connected with the Great War by content, composition dates or the associations of their composers. The English-born tenor Andrew Kennedy is supported in this project by an award from the Borletti-Buitoni Trust. Kennedy studied at King's College, Cambridge and at London’s Royal College of Music. As a member of the Young Artist Programme at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden he has won several competitions and awards. Notable among these are the 2005 BBC Singer of the World, and Rosenblatt Recital Prize. Kennedy was also a member of Radio 3’s New Generation Artists Scheme and a winner of the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artists' Award in 2006.
 
The poems are read by prominent classical actor Simon Russell Beale who this year seems to be regular face and voice on televisions and radio. Most recently in 2008 he presented the BBC Four classical music television series Sacred Music. Some may recall last year Russell Beale as narrator on the Benjamin Britten disc Britten on Film with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Martyn Brabbins on NMC D112. This NMC disc contains scores to accompany documentary films that Britten composed during the mid-1930s for the famous GPO Film Unit. In what was for me a disappointing disc Russell Beale’s narration of Auden’s rhyming verse for Night Mail was a pale shadow of the 1936 original by Pat Jackson.
 
The first set of songs is from Denis Browne educated at Rugby Public School and Clare College, Cambridge. Tragically he was killed in action shortly after he buried his friend Rupert Brooke. Browne is represented on this release by a single poem and five songs. Kennedy displays the gloomy character of Richard Lovelace’s To Gratiana and the wearisome imaginations of Yeats’ Had I the Heaven's embroidered cloths and Francis Thompson’s Dream Tryst. One notices Kennedy’s light and tender promptings in Henry Constable’s Diaphenia and the jaded pallor of The Isle of Lost Dreams by William Sharp.
 
Ivor Gurney was a star pupil of Stanford at the Royal College of Music. Answering Lord Kitchener’s call to arms Gurney volunteered for the British Army. On active service in France he was wounded and gassed and it is often thought that he also suffered from shell shock. Gurney had experienced mental instability from his early adulthood and tragically was to spend the last fifteen years of his life incarcerated in a mental hospital. A talented poet and composer, Gurney left behind a significant amount of music scores, primarily songs, the best which of stand comparison with the finest of the genre. Gurney’s output is represented here by two poems and seven songs. Of particular interest is the song By a Bierside written in the trenches of Flanders. This setting of Masefield’s idealised verse on death and grieving is sung by Kennedy with considerable expression. Amongst Gurney’s other ‘trench songs’ are the setting of his own verse Severn Meadows (later wonderfully set by Gurney’s great advocate Gerald Finzi. Ed.) and F.W. Harvey’s In Flanders. Each embodies nostalgic longings and yearnings to which Kennedy conveys a rather doleful character.
 
Like Gurney, Goossens was also a pupil of Stanford at London’s RCM. Unlike Browne and Gurney, Goossens did not serve during the Great War owing to an ill health exemption. Goossens was best known as a prominent conductor on the international stage. Tending to eschew the English pastoral school his music displays a progressive quality and contains marked European influences. His songs are rarely heard and he is represented here by ten of them. Kennedy communicates a feeling of languor to Goossens’s setting of Joyce’s Gentle Lady, a verse of love and death. I especially enjoyed his rendition of the love-torn pleadings of Hardy’s Dear heart and the dramatic martial strains of Joyce’s I hear an army.
 
All of that said, I have certainly heard the tenor Andrew Kennedy in finer voice. He displays a keen enthusiasm for the music and the songs are conveyed with commitment. Notwithstanding, I was rather disappointed with his clarity of diction; especially with what seemed an inclination to fade word-endings. Generally across these settings I would have preferred more tone colour in his voice. The characterful and sensitive narrator Simon Russell Beale also tends to fade his word-endings, an inclination that I first became aware of in his Night Mail narration.
 
The recording, although, acceptable has a rather dull sound that surely required a shaper focus. The presentation is spoiled by the minute print in the booklet for which I needed a magnifying glass to read. In addition the information in the essay on the Goossens songs seems rather meagre.
 
This is an agreeable recital yet one is left feeling that the outcome could have been much improved. I would count the rare Goossens songs as the highlight here.
 
Michael Cookson
 

 


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