Strings in the Earth and Air
Paul Martyn-West (tenor)
Nigel Foster (piano)
rec. Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead Heath, London 24-26 Oct 2005. DDD.
DIVERSIONS DDV24152 [68:37]

This is a re-release and its earlier incarnation was reviewed on this site (review). It’s unchanged except for the label and its number. Two exact contemporaries - Warlock and Moeran - share disc space with Geoffrey Stern (1935-2005) in a programme lasting not far short of seventy minutes.

The Seven Songs of James Joyce are some of Moeran’s most impressive songs. The first is, indeed, the song that lends its name to the disc’s title, Strings in the Earth and Air. Paul Martyn-West and pianist Nigel Foster perform them with keen intelligence and musical shape. They take The Pleasant Valley quite crisply and unsentimentally, and tend throughout to a tauter sense of direction than, say, Roderick Williams and John Talbot on their recent Chandos edition of the ‘Complete solo songs’ [CHAN 10596(2) review review]. Thus the raindrops in Rain has fallen are more drumming and insistent than in the Chandos recording, the sense of urgent reflection more intense. They also catch the tolling mood of the last setting, Now, O Now, in this Brown Land with acute sensibility. Still, sometimes their directness comes at a cost. The Merry Green Wood is a bit lightweight and not as buoyant as the Chandos pair’s performance, nor is Bright Cap as resilient or as rhythmically buoyant either. The Chandos recording is more present and Williams’s baritone is more centre-stage than Martyn-West’s tenor. The Six Folksongs from Norfolk are good to have, and not as easily accessible as one might suppose. There’s a good series of tempo decisions and enough yield to put these across very nicely.

In the same year that Moeran wrote these songs, Warlock wrote Candelights, twelve brief ‘nursery jingles’. James Griffett sang these with string quartet and wind accompaniment but only a handful [ASV CD QS 6143 now reissued on Regis RRC1316]. Way back, and very unavailable - to the best of my knowledge - is David Johnston and Daphne Ibbott on Galliard GAL 4012 (it’s an LP) and they did record the whole cycle. These two take the palm for sheer swagger, and they bring a gutsy confidence to what might otherwise seem rather twee settings (not that I think they are), though Martyn-West and Foster are more than able interpreters in their way. They also bring a lighter, more questioning intimacy to the complex Three Songs of 1916-17, whereas someone like the baritone Christopher Maltman - with John Constable on Collins 15002 (now Naxos: review) - offers a more adamantine determinism.

Geoffrey Stern’s songs are attractive. He, too, sets some Joyce, rewarding settings that give both musicians plenty to work on, not least when Stern takes the vocal line quite high. In his Wordsworth settings of 1953 I would gauge the dual influences of Finzi and Britten. They’re finely done and well worth getting to know.

This engaging recital should find a receptive audience among lovers of British song.

Jonathan Woolf

Track list Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Six Folksongs from Norfolk (1923): (Down by the Riverside [2:29]; The Bold ‘Richard’ [2:37]; Lonely Waters [2:34]; The Pressgang [2:06]; The Shooting of his Dear [3:11]; The Oxford Sporting Blade [1:26])
Seven Poems of James Joyce (1929): (Strings in the Earth and Air [1:56]; The Merry Green Wood [1:19]; Bright Cap [0:54]; The Pleasant Valley [1:11]; Donnycarney [1:29]; Rain has Fallen [1:26]; Now, O Now, in this Brown Land [3:52])
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
Candlelight: a Cycle of Nursery Jingles (1923) words mainly from ‘Nurse Lovechild’s Legacy’ (1916): (How many miles to Babylon? [0:37]; I won’t be my father’s Jack [0:37]; Robin and Richard [0:42]; O my Kitten [1:03]; Little Tommy Tucker [1:03]; There was an old man [0:36]; I had a little pony [0:29]; Little Jack Jingle [0:37]; There was a man of Thessaly [0:47]; Suky, you shall be my wife [1:12]; There was an old woman [0.44]; Arthur O’ Bower [0:44])
Three Songs (1916-1917): (Along the Stream words by Li Po translated by L Cranmer-Byng [3:10]; Take, O Take those Lips Away words by William Shakespeare [2:14]; Heracleitus words by Callimachus translated by William Cory [3:40])
A Setting of Bruce Blunt - The Fox (1930) [3:19]
Geoffrey STERN (1935-2005)
Three Wordsworth Songs (1953): To the Cuckoo [3:22]; She Dwelt among the Untrodden Ways [2:21]; To an Infant [2:20]
Four Songs of James Joyce (2001-5): Lean out of your window [1:48]; Strings in the Earth and Air [2:52]; Now, O Now in this Brown Land [4:08]; Gentle Lady [2:52]
A Setting of Henry Treece - Legend (1960) [1:21]

An engaging recital that should find a receptive audience among lovers of British song.