The first time I heard RVW’s On Wenlock Edge
on 12 October 1972. It was a radio broadcast as part of the composer’s
centenary celebrations and the RFH concert consisted of Job
the Eighth Symphony and the orchestral incarnation of this great
song-cycle. The London Philharmonic was conducted by the venerable
Sir Adrian Boult. (The tenor was Richard Lewis and a recording
of the Housman work was issued on a now-deleted Intaglio CD INCD7411
Ed.) I was bowled over by all three works - but was, as they
say in Yorkshire, ‘gob-smacked’ by On
. A wee bit later, I heard a performance of the version
for piano and string quartet. I rushed out and bought a copy
of Housman’s poems as well as the LP. Both have been treasures
ever since. However, it has taken nearly forty years to (consciously)
hear this work in its setting for tenor and piano only. I note
that the score does suggest that the string quartet is ‘optional’:
it is a case of being seriously impressed once again. Richard
Dowling - a name I had not heard of before - and Joanna Smith
bring a delight to this work that is sometimes lacking in better
known exponents. From the opening bars of the eponymous song
to the last notes of ‘Clun’ this is a beautifully
stated performance. If I were to sum it up in a word it would
rather than histrionic
. I cannot
emphasise how impressed I am with this performance.
Joanna Smith plays two lovely works by Vaughan Williams. The
reflective The Lake in the Mountains
, which was a spin-off
from the film music to the wartime drama, set in Canada, The
. The well known Prelude
is heard in the piano arrangement by Bryan
Kelly. It is a restrained and ultimately near-perfect work.
I have not come across the music of Andrew Wright before. The
Arkiv catalogue does not give any listings for him: I cannot
find a website or page devoted to his works. However, The
Bliss of Solitude
is a little masterpiece and well-deserves
to be known to British - I assume he is British? - music enthusiasts.
Apparently, Wright has composed for the Church with a number
of liturgical works to his credit including his Requiem
2005. The present song-cycle is, for him, a step along a new
path. The genesis of the work came about when the composer was
given a copy of Wordsworth’s poetical works. He selected
six of the poems to set to music. The poems chosen are some of
the most popular numbers - although the first song, 'A Sense
Sublime' and the fifth, ‘Nature’ are perhaps less
well-known than they should be. I hold my hand up and admit that
I was sceptical when I received this disc - for a composer to
risk setting ‘To a Butterfly’, ‘Daffodils’, ‘She
Dwelt among th’ hidden ways’ and ‘To a Skylark’ is
a huge gamble. Yet it has worked well. Even the almost hackneyed
popularity of ‘Daffodils’ does not detract from the
innocence of this setting: the same can be said of the other
three pot-boilers. This is a very well-balanced song-cycle. If
I were to try to give a ‘soundscape’ of these pieces
I would suggest that they are well and truly in the tradition
of English Lieder as established over the past century. I guess
that Finzi is an influence, but other composers such as Vaughan
Williams and even Roger Quilter are never far away. However the
music rarely, if ever, has the darker tones of Peter Warlock
or Ivor Gurney. The words and the music are well wrought, with
the lyrical melodies largely deriving from the ‘declamation’ of
the text. The piano accompaniment is interesting and supportive
without becoming overbearing.
One of the pleasures I had in recent years was the discovery
that Roger Quilter wrote piano pieces. Most often associated
with his excellent corpus of songs, there are very few recordings
of his other music available. The Three Pieces
Op. 16 were composed between 1909 and 1916. Certainly the most
accomplished of them would seen to be Summer Evening.
is an impressionistic work that manages to conjure up the mood
of the title. John Ireland enthusiasts will know the piano piece
of the same title by that composer. Both works are treasures
and both deserve to be better known. The Dance in the Twilight
a Country Fair
are perhaps a little more predictable in their
salon music roots, although all three works are worthy of their
The remainder of the CD is devoted to some eight songs by Quilter.
The two groups, Three Shakespeare Songs
Op.6 and Three
Op. 3 contain some of the composer’s best loved
works. They are not cycles, but collections of songs. I was particularly
impressed with Richard Dowling’s interpretation of ‘Blow,
blow, thou winter wind’ which is a well-poised song that
balances positive and negative thoughts in the poet’s mind.
It ends with a reference to ‘This life is most jolly’.
The other two songs in this set are ‘Come away, death’ and ‘Oh
mistress mine’. One of the most perfect Quilter settings
has to be the Shelley poem ‘Music, when soft voices die’:
it is ever popular and has been recorded many times. However
Dowling makes it sound new and fresh. ‘June’ is a
setting of a poem by Nora Hooper and is a new discovery to me
- although it is on the Hyperion disc (CDA66878) by John Mark
Ainsley and Malcolm Martineau. It is good to have it here. The
CD closes with the Three Songs
Op.3 - Shelley’s ‘Love’s
Philosophy’, Tennyson’s ‘Now sleeps the crimson
petal and finally Henley’s ‘Fill a glass with golden
wine’. This last song makes a fitting close to an excellent
and varied recital.
I do have three criticisms of this CD production: it has nothing
to do with the performance. Why, O why will CD companies not
walk that extra mile and provide full details of all the works
presented. I had to search my reference books, catalogues and
biographies to enter the dates for composers and works. It was
easy (but time-consuming) for me - but not all listeners have
internet access or a large music library! Secondly, I know nothing
of Andrew Wright - there are no biographical notes here - so
I still am none the wiser. Lastly, there are no programme note
references to the RVW piano pieces: neither are the authors of
the Quilter song texts given - apart from the Shakespeare.
This CD showcases the considerable talents of Richard Dowling.
His North Country credentials are clear for all to see! He studied
at Manchester University, sang at Chetham’s School of Music
and for a time was a Lay Clark at Manchester Cathedral. He is
a long-standing member of the Manchester University Chamber Choir.
Joanna Smith is a talented and sympathetic accompanist: it is
good to hear her interpretation of the excellent piano solos
on this CD.
This disc will be enjoyed by all enthusiasts of English Music.
It is a fine programme that balances older and more recent composers
with some well-known pieces and a few new or rediscovered works.
All in all, it is a most satisfying release.