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Songs of Innocence
Trad. (arr. Benjamin Britten)
I wonder as I wander
(1940-41) [4:09]
Trad. (arr. Charles Ives)
In the mornin’
- Negro Spiritual (1929) [2:11]
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
(1929) [1:56]
The Owl (1929) [1:27] Witches Song (1929) [0:43] Chamber Music V (1929) [1:23]
The Rainbow (No.2 of Three Two-part Songs) (1932) [2:21] The Oxen (1967) [2:43]
Little Sir William (c.1940) [2:53]
Michael Berkeley (b.1948)
Cradle Song (late 1960s rev. 1976-77) [1:41]
Peter Warlock (1894-1930)
The bayly berith the bell away
(1919) [2:32]
William Boyce (1710-1779) (arr. Elizabeth Poston)
Tell me, lovely shepherd
(1742) (1943) [3:08]
Michael Flanders (1922-1975) and Donald SWANN (1923-1994) (arr. Andrew Plant)
The Slow Train
(1963) [3:48]
Trad. (arr. Benjamin Britten)
Ca’ the yowes
(1951) [3:37]
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) (arr. Maurice Jacobson)
Silent Worship
(1728) [1:49]
Charles Wood (1866-1926)
Who is Silvia
(1891) [1:45]
Trad. arr. Andrew Plant
Caleno custere me
(1984) [2:10]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Dirge for Fidele
(1895) [3:34]
Roger Quilter (1877-1953)
Summer Sunset
(1938) [1:57]
Charles Ives
Slow March
Benjamin Britten
Tom Bowling
(1959) [4:54]
John Jeffries
Matthew, Mark, Luke & John
from When I was Young (1950) [1:16]
Malcolm Williamson (1931-2003)
My bed is a boat from From a Child’s Garden (1968) [3:01]
Samuel Barber (1913-1976)
Sure on this shining night
No.4 of Four Songs (1938) [2:27]
Sweet and low
No.4 from Six English Lyrics (1966) [2:29]
Andrew Swait (treble); James Bowman (counter-tenor); Andrew Plant (piano)
rec. 11 August, 8 September 2007, Cheltenham College, Cheltenham, UK
Experience Classicsonline

For my money the most interesting part of this adventurous collection of songs is the early Britten: there are four ‘unknown’ numbers dating from 1929 when the composer was barely a teenager. Yet there is a confidence and a subtlety here that belies his innocence. I have never heard these pieces before and am both grateful and delighted to have been introduced to them. The choice of text suggests that Britten was already knowledgeable about the deep riches of English Literature. Diaphenia, written by Constable and Chettle and The Owl by Tennyson are sung by the treble, whereas the ‘fantastic’ Witches Song the Masque of Dreams by Ben Johnson and James Joyce’s Chamber Music V is performed by James Bowman. These are great works that are fully worthy to be in Britten’s catalogue.
Three later songs further explore this investigation into the ‘unknown BB. The Rainbow is an attractive ‘duet’ to words by that poet of smutched innocence, Walter de la Mare. Perhaps one of the ‘saddest’ of poems in the English language is Thomas Hardy’s agnostic musing on the ‘kneeling oxen’ on Christmas Eve. Once again this is set as a duet for both performers which highlights the sense of loss of innocence. Yet this is a late Britten song, written in 1967. Finally there is a lovely setting of Little Sir William dating from 1940. Other Britten arrangements include Niles’s I wonder as I wander, Charles Dibdin’s Tom Bowling and the traditional Ca’ the Yowes.
I do not intend to describe all 25 tracks on this explorative CD. However, I want to mention what to me were a few highlights – although I recognise that every one of these miniatures will be someone’s especial favourites.
Perhaps the one work on this CD I enjoyed most is the heart-achingly beautiful rendition of Flanders’s and Swann’s The Slow Train. For anyone who has lamented the demise of the railway branch-line this is an ‘essential’ work of art. Of course, possibly one prefers the original version – but this recording gives a new slant on this work that is well worth engaging with.
The ‘colonies’ are not ignored in this CD. Charles Ives’s fine setting of the Negro spiritual ‘In the Mornin’ is surely a minor masterpiece that is a million miles away from preconceived images of that master’s complex music. Samuel Barber, Sure on this shining night is hauntingly beautiful and is possibly one of the great songs written by an American. Malcolm Williamson contributes a setting of the traditional Sweet and Low and Robert Louis Stevenson’s evocation of childhood imagination in My bed is a boat reveals a composer who is able to combine craftsmanship with wondrous invention.
But back to blighty: look out for Charles Wood’s version of that well worn text – Who is Silvia. How hard it must be to write a ‘new’ song that neither nods to, nor feels intimidated by Schubert!
Naturally the vocal texture of a boy-treble and counter-tenor is an acquired taste – and I am not sure that I have acquired it. However, if the listener has doubts about the wisdom or even the necessity of purchasing this CD let them consider 1) the programme has a number of pieces that are unavailable elsewhere –including some ‘unknown’ Britten; 2) there is no need to listen to this CD from end to end. To do so would be to gradually loose concentration on what are largely well-wrought songs, 3) the programme notes are extensive and extremely helpful. Which brings me to 4) -they are beautifully performed. For not a single moment are any parts of these songs forced or contrived. There is a beauty about both the voices that almost deifies description. And, of course, Andrew Plant makes a sensitive accompanist.
Finally, there is nothing sentimental about this CD: this is not some choir-robed starlet singing popular tear-jerkers – this is well written and well presented music at its best. The bottom line is that the title well sums up the entire project – these are ‘Songs of innocence’.
John France


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