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Rutland BOUGHTON (1878 - 1960)
Four Songs Op.24 [11:26]
Five Celtic Love Songs [16:38]
Songs of Womanhood Op.33 [17:28]
Three Songs Op.39 [10:22]
Symbol Songs [12:39]
Sweet Ass [1:51]
Louise Mott (mezzo); Alexander Taylor (piano)
rec. Music Hall of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London, 24 April and 1 May 2005
BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS431CD [70:33]

Experience Classicsonline


Before starting this review could I direct any readers towards Ian Boughton’s excellent article on this website - which highlights next year (2010) as the 50th Anniversary of the death of this fascinating, at times frustrating, composer. The reappearance of this fine survey of his songs from the redoubtable British Music Society I’m guessing is by way of an early celebration.

On the strength of reading an early edition of Michael Hurd’s definitive biography - then titled “Immortal Hour” - while a student, a friend and I drove down to Glastonbury one day to see the sunrise over the Tor - we didn’t: it was foggy! This was back around 1980 and at that time the Assembly Rooms, just off the High Street near the Abbey, were closed up and very forlorn. This had been the focal point of the legendary - an apt term in the circumstances - Glastonbury Festivals of which Rutland Boughton was the inspiration and driving force. I was so pleased to return a year or so ago and see that it is now a thriving community arts centre. I was able to go in and see the rooms in which the great and the good of British music and performing arts gathered for performances of Boughton’s stage works. I found it extremely moving and powerful to be in the place which had been the centre of so much creativity at such a pivotal moment in our recent past. It is a very simple and modest venue - probably exactly why it appealed to the socialist Boughton. To consider Boughton as a composer it is impossible to separate the man and his moral/social conscience from his body of work. As Michael Hurd wrote in his 2005 liner-note for this release - “What mattered to Boughton was the message [of the songs] … neither in his life, nor in his art, was Rutland Boughton willing to conform”. It is precisely this non-conformist attitude that makes him so fascinating as a composer yet also by turns frustrating.

Over recent years there has been a slow but sure recording of his key works so that now we can hear the three Symphonies, the two most famous stage works (The Immortal Hour and Bethlehem), a good sample of the chamber music and other orchestral works. This well-filled disc fills another gap by providing a survey of 23 songs representing just under a quarter of his song output. The only area where we still lack significantly is his choral output. From memory - I do not have my copy of the Hurd biography to hand - I recall the author being very enthused about the quality of Boughton choral arrangements of folksongs as well as singling out the choral passages in the stage works as being some of the most effective. I have to admit to having an equivocal attitude towards the music. There are moments when I think the music is quite wonderful - as Ian Boughton points out in the above article - the BBC broadcast of the 3rd Symphony in 1986 under the late-lamented Edward Downes (later released on the BBC Classics label) was a revelation. This Downes performance has always struck me as far superior to the studio recording with Vernon Handley and the RPO on Hyperion having a muscular drive and joy that is utterly compelling. Yet for all of the radical ideas he embraced intellectually and socially his musical language is in the main very conservative - he is no Marc Blitzstein or Kurt Weill trying to express political ideas in a contemporary idiom. As Hurd points out, for much of his life he had to be a pragmatic and practical musician earning his money where he could find it and this is reflected in the songs recorded here. His experience as a rehearsal pianist from 1903 and later from 1905 as singing teacher at the Birmingham Midland Institute of Music set him in good stead to know what “works” vocally. So there are recurring characteristics in these songs of the melodies lying well for the voice set over accompaniments that are effective without being domineering.

This is my first encounter with any Boughton songs so it is very easy to fall into a trap of saying what they are not. It is hard to discern a consistently individual voice at work here. Some songs leap out with power and emotion - The Dead Christ (track 2) - is one that feels like a miniature scena building dramatically while at the same time have a sense of a slowly moving funeral procession in the accompaniment that binds the whole together. Next to that I find the Five Celtic Love Songs to be too full of a kind of drawing-room easy sentiment. It’s the brickbat of the Celtic Twilight that is all too often levelled at Arnold Bax (who also set Fiona Macleod lyrics taken from From the Hills of Dream as his A Celtic Song-Cycle) but one that Bax ultimately overcomes - if not in this cycle. In the context of Boughton though this is very valuable to hear - Macleod (the pen name of William Sharp) provided the source text for The Immortal Hour which will always be Boughton’s key to fame even if not his best work. The enigma that is Rutland Boughton will always remain the question whether or not his fame was based on the fact that he happened to fulfil an ideal and conviction at the time is was needed most. So what was it about Immortal Hour (and the similar spirit that is captured in these songs) that so moved and inspired all strata of British society for fifteen or so years from 1914? All of the sponsors of the Glastonbury Festivals either wrote themselves or were regularly exposed to music and art of a far more radical nature than that expounded by Boughton. It is almost as though he embodied a pure social (both political and practical) ideal that was a spiritual port in the stormy seas of World War I and the 1920’s. His neglect since that time is probably due to the fact that the society that served has changed and with it their needs. What seemed a fusion of the best of a legendary past and a idealised future (don’t forget Boughton’s socialism was that of Ruskin, William Morris and George Bernard Shaw) has now been revealed as naïve and simplistic.

To look at production photographs from the time, what was clearly deemed radical in setting, design and movement now looks at best quaint. But that is more of an indictment of our own more self-serving and cynical age. Boughton’s sincerity shines through every song. Take the second of the Songs of Womanhood Op.33 - A Woman to her Lover (track11). This is one of the most musically impressive and dramatic songs recorded here. The text was supplied in 1911 by Christina Walsh who was to become Boughton’s second ‘wife’ as well as a main artistic collaborator at Glastonbury through her work as a painter and designer. The song sweeps one along until you start following the text which is PC before the term was coined. You would have to be sincere (and in love) to see a line to set that goes “And our co-equal love will make the stars to laugh with joy” and not be daunted - the sentiment is wholly admirable the expression of it clumsy in the extreme. And therein lies the heart of the Boughton dilemma - the gap between intent/idea and execution.

The performers here - Louise Mott and Alexander Taylor prove to be staunch and worthy advocates. Mott has a firm and focused mezzo voice that is able to move easily across the vocal range demanded. This is particularly effective in the dramatic songs outlined above. Given that there is a tendency for some of these settings to drift toward the ballad in feel Mott makes a virtue of that by lightening her vocal style to great effect - track 12 A Song of Giving is a good example. There is a slight lack of emotional differentiation inherent in the many of the songs themselves which the performers do their best to overcome. Taylor’s accompaniments are all one could wish for and the engineering has the piano excellently balanced; behind the voice but still an equal partner. Full texts are provided (in English only) but Mott’s beautifully clear diction means they are only required for reference. To enjoy Boughton today I believe it is important to accept him for what he is in his own right. He is not a great composer but his music is always sincere, often beautiful and never less than interesting. Clearly he was a man who inspired - literally - those around him. The recording projects outlined in the article for next year sound very exciting (again from memory I seem to recall Hurd extolling a passage in the Queen of Cornwall where the walls of the castle sing) but in the meantime this disc is an excellent introduction cum appendix to them as a way of gaining an insight into the mind of this singular British composer. 

Nick Barnard

See also reviews by Rob Barnett and Em Marshall

 


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