George BUTTERWORTH (1885 – 1916)
Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1911) [12:33]
Folk Songs from Sussex [19:18]
Bredon Hill and Other Songs (1912) [14:11]
I will make you brooches (1909) [2:11]
I fear thy kisses (1909) [1:50]
Requiescat (1911) [2:52]
Roderick Williams (baritone); Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 11-13 January 2010, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk. DDD
NAXOS 8.572426 [52:06]

A German sniper shot Lt George Butterworth, of the 23rd Division the 13th Durham Light Infantry through the head on the night of 5 August 1916 during the battle of the Somme. With his death he became one of the “lads who will never be old”, to quote Housman, and one of those composers about whom speculation as to their subsequent development was rife. This kind of supposition is futile, but with such a loss, one is bound to mourn and wonder. At the time of his commission he was seen as one of the brightest talents in British music, and even though his output is slender - he destroyed many of his works - it’s easy to understand why. This disk contains his complete vocal music with piano – for the rest of his works, there’s three orchestral works and a song cycle, Love Blows as the Wind Blows, for baritone and string quartet (subsequently orchestrated). He is one of the handful of composers about whom one can say his total output is perfect with not a note out of place.

As a young musician, just out of college, I gave a number of recitals, with a fantastic pianist, and, as often as possible, we performed the Six Songs from A Shropshire Land, so I have a very personal interest and involvement with this work. To say that it’s the greatest song-cycle in the English language is no understatement. With a Webern–like concision, years before Webern commenced the total serialisation of his music, Butterworth penetrates to the very core of Housman’s slight poems, and fills them with a strength and poignancy lacking in all other Housman settings I know – and there are many. Published in 1896, Housman’s poems were intended to resonate with the feelings brought about by the First Boer War (1880/1881) and seem to presage the Second Boer War (1899/1902), However, Butterworth’s death, among too many others, not to mention his heartbreaking settings, have lead many to believe that the poems were written some twenty years later. Certainly, emotionally, they appear perfectly to reflect the feelings of that later time. Surprisingly, the cycle hasn’t had as many recordings over the years as one would have thought. My favourites are Roy Henderson’s 1941 version and John Carol Case’s fine 1976 disc, for Pearl; this is almost as fine; what puts the disk ahead of them is the coupling. Williams is a singer who has impressed me more and more since I saw, and heard, him in Opera North’s production of Peter Grimes a couple of years ago. He has intelligence and insight, understands the musical line, displays marvellous breath control, and his diction is magnificent. This latter is handy as there are no texts in the booklet.

The simple folksong arrangements are split into two groups, either side of the Bredon Hill set and the three separate songs. They are given in a straightforward way, with no attempt to “interpret” them, as befits the simplicity of the originals. The accompaniments are equally simple. I can understand why Butterworth, after writing the Six Songs from A Shropshire Land, would wish to set more Housman, but good as they are, Bredon Hill and Other Songs don’t reach the ecstatic heights of its companion cycle. These are more consciously concert “art” songs, lacking the folksong effortlessness of the earlier set.

Quite simply this is a great disk of great music in very fine performances. If I have a complaint at all, it is that Williams fails to vary his tone colour as much as one would like, making everything sound too alike, and he misses the great interpretive challenge of the final song of the Six Songs from A Shropshire LandIs my team ploughing? – a conversation between a ghost and his best friend. That said, this is a disk well worth having. The recording is good but the notes are perfunctory.

Bob Briggs

Very fine performances.