Lennox BERKELEY (1903 - 1989) Tombeaux, op.14 (1926) [9:18]
Roger QUILTER (1877 - 1953) Four Songs of Mirza Schaffy, op.2 (1903) [6:01]
Giles SWAYNE (b.1946) The Joys of Travel, op.124 (2009) [12:35]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913 - 1976) Quatre Chansons Françaises (1928) [14:55]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872 - 1958) Songs of Travel (1904) [25:42]
Benjamin Hulett (tenor), Alexander Soddy (piano)
rec. 24-25 August 2009, New Hall, Winchester College. DDD
SAPHRANE S 62611 [68:31]
It’s a sad reflection that these days the song recital tends to consist of the usual composers, mainly German and French. The vast repertoire of English song - from Gurney, Warlock and Ireland to the present day - seems only to given in specialist recitals devoted to such music. The singers seem often to have learned the music purely for that recital and seldom, if ever, perform the music again. With that in mind one wonders why composers bother to write songs. Were he alive today, Britten would still be composing his cycles and receiving myriad performances. The same would be true of a vocal work by Tippett, but what about songs and song-cycles by Richard Arnell, Adrian Cruft, Kenneth Leighton, Edmund Rubbra and so many more? And if the songs of these composers don’t receive performances, what is the point of writing songs at all? The answer is obvious: the English language has some of the best lyrical poetry in the world. Composers feel that they can illuminate the words with their music. So hurrah for that fact and boo to the singers who ignore this rich and endlessly fascinating repertoire.
And now we come to this disk, and its very varied content. The first four items will be new to many and they are most welcome in my collection. Lennox Berkeley’s Tombeaux is a setting of four poems by Jean Cocteau, in French, and they have more than a whiff of Poulenc to them. I imagine that these days we tend to think of Berkeley as a very English figure but his heritage was partly French and he studied with Nadia Boulanger. His outlook was more cosmopolitan than many English composers of his generation and his work displays a fastidiousness which could only have been achieved through his Gallic connections. These songs, though short, explore quite a deep emotional range, in the music, I have no idea what the words are about for the booklet doesn’t provide translations of the texts set. Roger Quilter’s early four settings of German texts show all the hallmarks of his compositions - clear writing, a great respect for the text he was setting and a grateful piano part. Whilst they may not have the assuredness of the soon to be written First Set of Shakespeare Songs, op.6 they make an interesting and enjoyable group. Again, there are no translations for the German texts in the booklet.
After writing about the beauty and wealth of great English literature available for song setting we have had two by French and German poets. The third composer represented here ignores those great writers and sets his own verse. There is a good reason for this, for the composer knows exactly what music he wishes to write and he can get the best words possible for setting by writing them himself. As poetry the verses set here leave a lot to be desired but as a look at the mores of travel and those that do it, for whatever reason, they work well. However, although I am sure that Swayne wishes to make certain points in his work, was it really necessary to mention consumer rape, deep vein thrombosis or a boozy old tar? It’s little things like these which make one wonder at the tenacity of the writer. Also, some words simply don’t set well to music. The music, however, is very fine indeed.
The Quatre Chansons Françaises was the 14 year old Britten’s first song-cycle and, as if he knew how his career was going to progress, it’s an orchestral cycle. It wasn’t performed until 1980 when Heather Harper sang it in a radio concert, three months before the public premiere, and her performance was issued on a BBC Carlton Classics disk (15656 9158 - coupled with a live 1978 performance of Les Illuminations, with Groves, and a splendid 1986 performance of Our Hunting Fathers with Downes) which is now out of print but is worth the search. It is so obviously an orchestral work that it sounds somewhat thin in this version with piano and no amount of good work can convince me of the validity of performing the piece with piano.
Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel only came together as the cycle we know after the composer’s death. In the early years of the century two volumes of songs were published but the final epilogue, which makes sense both musically and from a story-telling point of view, was discovered in the composer’s papers. Only then could the cycle be published as we now know it. It’s a work I used to perform often, in my performing days, and I have a special affinity for the piece. I am rather worried by this performance for the music needs a darker timbre than the tenor voice can offer. No matter how well Benjamin Hulett performs these songs I cannot warm to them for he doesn’t seem to be suffering. This isn’t Winterreise where the high voice is essential for the feel of desperation, loneliness and loss, but a more earthy composition. The deeper voice anchors it firmly in the English countryside, well away from the Austrian winter and imminent death. Hulett tries his best, but there are many other, and more apt, songs which could have filled up this disk.
Hulett is a strong singer, with a vibrant personality, good breath control, excellent diction and the ability to tell a story and engage us in the telling. He is fine in the first four works for these are separate songs brought together as cycles or groups without a real story thread - although one could say that the Swayne has one. In the Vaughan Williams I feel he doesn’t display a sufficiently full-bodied character to carry the argument over 25 minutes. He tends to sing everything in the same way and many times the chances for a little felicitous vocal inflection or colouring are missed. I give one example. At 00:44 in The Infinite Shining Heavens (no.6) at the words I saw them distant as heaven and at 1:42, Night after night in my sorrow, there is a total lack of mystery and wonder, which makes the song quite bland instead of the vision of a better future Vaughan Williams and Stevenson obviously had in mind.
I cannot imagine that anyone would buy this disk for the Vaughan Williams for the other works on the disk are much more interesting, and almost totally unknown. Alexander Soddy gives inspired support and the recording is clear and bright. The booklet contains brief notes and full texts, but, as already noted, no translations.
Benjamin Hulett has the ability to tell a story and engage us in the telling.