Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
On the Downs [1:52]
Ha'nacker Mill [2:19]
The bonnie Earl of Murray [1:48]
The cherry trees [1:07]
By a bierside (1916) [3:59]
Five Elizabethan Songs (1913-14) [12:45]
The Apple Orchard from Seven Sappho Songs (1919) [1:09]
All night under the moon [3:12]
The Latmian Shepherd [3:45]
I will go with my father a-ploughing [2:26]
Last Hours [3:42]
Cathleen ni Houlihan (1919) [2:56]
A Cradle Song [2:27]
The Fiddler of Dooney (1918) [1:55]
Snow [2:03]
The Singer [2:25]
Nine of the clock [0:53]
Epitaph in Old Mode (1920) [2:17]
The Ship [2:20]
The Scribe [2:40]
Fain would I change that note (1918) [2:45]
An Epitaph [1:50]
When death to either shall come (1920) [1:32]
Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) [2:05]
The boat is chafing (1920) [1:28]
Lights out (1919)[3:55]
Susan Bickley (mezzo)
Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. June 2008, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk
NAXOS 8.572151 [71:36]

This is a generous and often intriguing programme of Gurney’s songs. There are tried and trusted recital favourites but also a fair number that are obscure even to enthusiasts of English song. There is even ‘first recording’ status here; neither The bonnie Earl of Murray nor The cherry trees has been recorded before - and I have to say I don’t know of a previous recording of Fain would I change that note, though it’s not marked as a premiere recording.

I suppose - except for one or two obvious examples - Gurney is mostly sung by men, so this concentrated take by Susan Bickley allows one to gauge how well the mezzo can circumnavigate Gurney’s emotive highs and lows, how expressively she can colour-shade, and how she responds to the more seismic moments enshrined in the writing.

There is always room for interpretative latitude so a few of my own personal observations can stand for the performances as a whole. Her response to a well known setting such as Ha'nacker Mill I would characterise as clement, reserved and perhaps lacking in intimacy. Or let’s take By a bierside, one of his ‘biggest’ settings. It suits her warm mezzo very well, and she sings it with assurance, a keen ear as to rhythm and textual meaning. Maybe I am being pernickety but I find her vibrato toward the end a touch wearying. Burnside’s piano postlude (before the singer’s repeated lines) is nicely measured. She deals very well indeed with the Elizabethan Songs. I was particularly taken by the way she catches the tripping element, the underlying rhythmic spring, that Hopkinsesque quality in Under the greenwood tree. Sleep is possibly his greatest song and Bickley brings a splendid legato to it, even if - for my taste - the words are slightly underplayed. 
I admire Bickley and Burnside’s performances. If I miss something I suppose it’s a sense of intimacy. I feel it especially in All night under the moon where the Potton Hall studio also lacks the kind of acoustic that could slightly warm things up. It can be admirably clear in chamber recitals but chilly sometimes too. Could The Fiddler of Dooney be saucier? But how clever to essay The Scribe. Why don’t more singers dig out this song with its ingratiating lyricism? It’s unaccountably overlooked and the Bickley-Burnside team do it proud.

Some final thoughts then. Bickley has the talent and vocal range to surmount the varied challenges of this relatively large number of songs. If I find her sometimes a little cool, that may not be your view at all. Burnside is a decided asset, weighting chords with acumen, attentive to Bickley’s breath demands, and so on. I did find the recording a touch chilly. The texts are available via Naxos online.

Jonathan Woolf