Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Complete Solo Folksong Arrangements: Six Folksongs from Norfolk; The North Sea Ground; High Germany; The Sailor and Young Nancy; The Little Milkmaid; The Jolly Carter; Parson and Clerk; Gaol Song; Six Suffolk Folksongs; Songs (7) from County Kerry
Adrian Thompson (tenor); Marcus Farnsworth (baritone); John Talbot (piano)
Members of the Weybridge Male Voice Choir/Christine Best
rec. Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d’Abernon, Cobham, Surrey, 20, 27 May and 6 October 2010. DDD
Full contents list at end review
BRITISH MUSIC SOCIETY BMS438CD [65:38]
There must be so many feathers in the cap of the BMS now that I’m surprised it has not discovered flight. To which another must be added with this simply superb collection that is an automatic addition for anyone interested in the music of E J Moeran or the folk-song revival in Britain generally. Hot on the heels of the excellent survey of the – nearly – complete songs on Chandos this acts as a fascinating appendix.
The truly illuminating and extensive liner-note by Roy Palmer points out that in comparison to the doyen of folk-song collecting Vaughan Williams’ 800 transcriptions, Moeran’s 70 or so examples seems pretty small beer. But it could well be argued that ultimately folk-song and by extension folk culture was more of an abiding influence and inspiration for Moeran than Vaughan Williams. There will always be an argument about the validity of any folk-song transcriptions. On a basic level there is a corrupting of the original song in the sheer act of notation – the freedom of rhythm and pitch in folksong being bent to the will of western notation. Furthermore, even when recordings are made a degree of self-consciousness and indeed self-censorship by the performers results in documents that do not tell the whole story. Add to that performances by trained ‘classical’ singers and the sanitisation of these traditional songs and the earthy energy they exude is complete.
I mention this here as a kind of worst-case scenario; the arrangements and performers on this disc are far removed from this. Moeran produced three main groupings; a set of songs from Norfolk, another from Suffolk and finally a set from County Derry. Additionally there are half a dozen miscellaneous songs and the set is completed by the first recording of an original – early – song in a clearly faux-folksong style The North Sea Ground. The choice of these counties exactly reflects Moeran’s life-long association with the peoples and landscapes of these different parts of the British Isles. I think there is a case to be made that the choice of these particular songs for inclusion in these sets reflects and gives insight into Moeran’s own musical mind and preferences. For sure these are beautiful songs with evocative story-telling texts but for me the real interest is the mirror they hold up to Moeran’s musical personality. This is especially true of two songs that form the third and fifth of the set Six Folksongs from Norfolk. Number three is Lonely Waters – a title which anyone familiar with Moeran’s fairly modest orchestral output will recognise as a name of an exquisite orchestral miniature. In the orchestral work Moeran expands on the lonely desolation implicit in the folksong. He wrote that the last verse of the song should be sung as part of this miniature tone-poem; “So I'll go down to some lonely waters, Go down where no-one shall me find, Where the pretty little birds do change their voices, and every moment blow blustering wild”. There is one recording of this work which takes the vocal – preferred – option but the fruitily voiced Anne Murray rather destroys the atmospheric moment and conductor Jeffrey Tate seems ill at ease with the genre generally. Palmer mentions the other significant song of this set The Shooting of My Dear rather in passing as appearing in Moeran’s greatest work the Symphony in G minor. Geoffrey Self in his superb book The Music of E. J. Moeran published by Toccata Press presents a very compelling analysis that places this song at the very centre of the work both musically and emotionally. The symphony had a long genesis between 1924 and over a decade later. The simple fact that folk-derived material was influencing Moeran for such an extended period proves its significance to the composer. Once you strip away Folk Song suites or Rhapsodies, I would go as far as saying I do not know of another English/British work (or indeed body of work) where the influence of folksong is so key in so many important works. Moeran was very much at ease in the social convivial environment where most of the songs were collected – the village pub - so again it is hard not to reach the conclusion that this music encapsulates ‘the best of times’ for him and hence has a biographical significance for him rather than just being a musicological way of escaping the suffocating influence of much 19th Century Germanic music.
Whilst singing his praises, the actual quality of the piano accompaniments as written here is well worth noting. The dilemma for the composer/arranger is how interventionist to be. Whether to provide a simple harmonic bed from which the songs can spring or to write something more overtly pianistic to satisfy an audience with a more sophisticated[?] palette. Moeran does neither – instead his piano writing seems to act as a kind of musical commentary in parallel with the songs. This is a brilliant solution since it neither patronises nor overwhelms the music instead capturing the composer’s own delight and inspiration in the source material. I listened recently to the Naxos release of songs by George Butterworth which includes that composer’s Folksongs from Sussex where he opts for a very understated simple approach to the piano accompaniments. In its own right that is very effective but if forced to make a choice I prefer Moeran’s more expressive and involved approach. At the end of the day these are not meant to be wholly authentic versions so as long as the composer’s musical commentary adds to our appreciation and enjoyment of the original – as Moeran’s undoubtedly does – the resultant music is a success.
Key to that success though is the quality of the performance. Both singers and Moeran stalwart John Talbot are magnificent. The bulk of the programme is performed by baritone Marcus Farnsworth. He is a new singer to me but on the evidence of this recording a name to follow. This is ideally unaffected singing with a naturally beautiful tone across the entire range. There is none of the arch mannered word pointing that some singers feel honour-bound to do to give these essentially simple songs more perceived weight. Just good musical phrasing and excellent diction. This latter is particularly welcome given that there are no texts provided in the booklet. There is something very apt about a young vibrant voice such as Farnsworth’s singing songs about love and adventure. Another detail I appreciate greatly is that at no point does Farnsworth indulge in any gum-shrinking, toe-curling “Mummerset” accent. Roderick Williams does this to differentiate between characters on his Naxos disc and it is a bad mistake. Apart from anything else it is inaccurate and patronising and such a choice would not be made if the characters portrayed were of different ethnic backgrounds. Tenor Adrian Thompson is in committed form too – this recording finds him in fresh and ardent voice although it is a statement of simple fact that clearly his voice is not as young as Farnsworth’s nor is his diction quite so pin-sharp. This latter detail is most clear in the Song from County Derry where the pattering nature of some of the lyrics means that occasional words are swallowed up along the way. Farnsworth is joined in three of the songs with the Weybridge Male Voice choir in much the same way that in the Chandos set male voices were added for the communal drinking songs. For these folksongs this seems a very good choice and the fact that the Weybridge men a good but slightly rough singers adds hugely to the character of the performances.
Both this disc and the Chandos set are accompanied by John Talbot who is without doubt one of the most experienced keyboard exponents of Moeran’s music. His playing is everything you would wish to hear – illuminating and appropriate without dominating the voice. The discreetly sophisticated engineering aids this by allowing weight and clarity to register without sounding in any way synthetic. By definition this is more of a reference disc rather than a balanced recital. Even in performances of this calibre of much very beautiful music there are not many times I think I would wish to listen to the whole disc at a single sitting. Some songs linger longer in the memory than others. On a purely personal front I enjoy the lyrical reflective ballads more than the roistering songs if for no other reason than the former give Moeran just a little more space to exercise his rhapsodic gift to great effect. That being said it is also fascinating to hear Moeran’s solo treatment of songs such as High Germany and The Sailor and Young Nancy. A melody variant of the former turns up in Holst’s Somerset Rhapsody and the latter was also set by Moeran for SATB chorus.
Given that the essence of folksong inhabits so much of Moeran’s most important music I must reiterate that I think this is a very important release. That being the case I am all the more pleased to be able to report that it is a success in every respect.
A success in every respect.
Full contents list
Six Folksongs from Norfolk
1 Down by the Riverside
2 The Bold Richard
3 Lonely Waters
4 The Pressgang
5 The Shooting of His Dear
6 The Oxford Sporting Blade
7 The North Sea Ground
8 High Germany
9 The Sailor and Young Nancy
10 The Little Milkmaid
11 The Jolly Carter
12 Parson and Clerk
13 Gaol Song
Six Suffolk Folksongs
14 Nutting Time
15 Blackberry Fold
16 Cupid’s Garden
17 Father and Daughter
18 The Isle of Cloy
19 A Seaman’s Life
Songs from County Kerry
20 The Dawning of the Day
21 My Love Passed Me By
22 The Murder of Father Hanratty
23 The Roving Dingle Boy
24 The Lost Lover
25 The Tinker’s Daughter
26 Kitty, I am in Love with You