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CD: AmazonUK

George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
The Complete Butterworth Songbook

Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ [14:16]
Haste on, my joys! [1:44]
[Six] Folk Songs from Sussex – Excluding Billingshurst [9:28]
I will make you brooches [2:25}
Love Blows as the Wind Blows [11:37]
I Fear Thy Kisses [2:19]
[Five] Folk Songs from Sussex – Billingshurst [9:51]
Requiescat [3:06]
Bredon Hill and Other Songs [16:10]
Bonus Film: George Butterworth Dancing [1:04]
Mark Stone (baritone); Stephen Barlow (piano)
rec. 8-10 December 2009, The Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK. DDD
English texts provided
STONE RECORDS 5060192780024 [71:03]

Experience Classicsonline
The baritone, Mark Stone, has made several forays into the English song repertoire on CD and, latterly, his recordings have begun to appear on his own label. I’ve already enjoyed his mixed recital of songs, entitled ‘English Love’ (review) and an earlier Quilter collection (review). With this latest disc he offers what is probably the most comprehensive and complete survey on disc of the songs of George Butterworth.

Although not specifically stated in the booklet, I learned from the label’s website that the disc includes the first-ever recording of the piano version of the collection of four songs, Love Blows as the Wind Blows. Also receiving first recordings here are eight of the eleven Folk Songs from Sussex – and we’re told there are presently no other available recordings of the remaining three songs – and another recorded première is accorded to Haste on, my joys! This is of especial interest to Butterworth admirers for the song was thought to be lost and a copy only turned up as recently as 2001. So for enterprise and comprehensiveness this collection scores very highly and, generally speaking, it gets high marks for execution also.

It’s pointless to speculate how significant a composer George Butterworth might have become had he not been one of the millions of young men slaughtered in the carnage that was the trench warfare of World War I. To compound the tragedy, in August 1915, when his regiment was ordered to France, he destroyed most of his earlier compositions because he thought they were unworthy. One such was the aforementioned Bridges setting, Haste on, my joys! Quite by chance a copy, not in Butterworth’s hand, was discovered by a researcher at the English Folk Dance and Song Society less than a decade ago and it’s good that it has been recorded now. It’s a romantic setting, in 6/8 time, I think. Whilst it’s not as distinctive a song as we find in the famous Housman collection that precedes it on the disc, it’s still well worth hearing and I’m glad it’s come to light at last.

Butterworth was an avid collector of folksongs, gathering some three hundred between 1906 and 1913. However, he only arranged - between 1907 and 1909 - the eleven recorded here, five of which he collected around the town of Billingshurst. I don’t mean in any way to disparage the arrangements when I say that they’re pretty straightforward. By that I mean that Butterworth presents the songs with a fairly unadorned piano part and allows the basic melodies, which are memorable in their own right, to come through and to speak for themselves. In this I think he showed good judgement and taste, avoiding the temptation to gild the lily into which Britten for one was wont to fall.

The collection of four songs entitled Love Blows as the Wind Blows was originally written with string quartet accompaniment and Butterworth subsequently orchestrated three of them – omitting the third song for some reason. In that guise I’ve come across them in Robert Tear’s recording with Vernon Handley (review) but this version, with piano accompaniment, was new to me and is interesting, not just because the songs themselves are good but because it’s thought that the piano arrangement may be by Vaughan Williams.

Butterworth is best known for his Housman songs – all of which are included here – and for the orchestral rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad, which uses a melody from ‘Loveliest of Trees’, the first song of Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. These wonderful songs and the five collected under the title Bredon Hill and Other Songs, seem to me to represent Butterworth at his greatest. Not only is the melodic inspiration consistently fine and the piano accompaniments full of interest and colour but also his acute response to and identification with the texts place these songs on a higher plain of accomplishment than anything else on the disc.

In general Mark Stone is an engaging and good advocate for all these songs. He clearly loves them and identifies with them – and he contributes useful booklet notes also. His voice is round, firm and mostly falls pleasingly on the ear and the text is delivered clearly. The one reservation I have is that sometimes the notes, especially sustained notes, don’t always sound to be hit and sustained right in the centre. Perhaps this is the result of too pronounced a desire to be expressive? I certainly thought he was trying a little too hard in ‘Loveliest of Trees’, though, happily, he relaxes more in the rest of that cycle. Perhaps it’s the way he produces some vowels? Whatever the reason, sometimes the delivery, and ones pleasure in it, is slightly marred – I thought I detected some slightly inaccurate pitching at the start of ‘When the Lad for Longing Sighs’, the second song in Bredon Hill and I’m surprised that wasn’t re-taken.

That said, there’s much to enjoy in Stone’s performances. In ‘Is My Team Ploughing’ (Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’) he manages the two distinct voices – those of the wistful dead lad and the robust survivor – very well and all the folksong settings come across very well. I also admired his sensitivity in the Oscar Wilde setting, Requiescat, a song that Butterworth composed within two months of the death of his own mother.

Throughout the recital Stephen Barlow is a perceptive and supportive partner, contributing strongly to the success of the enterprise. The well-documented production includes a short film of Butterworth engaging in folk dancing in 1912. You can access that by inserting the CD into your computer.

Overall, this is a valuable and well-produced survey of Butterworth’s songs, which all devotees of English songs should investigate.

John Quinn


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