English Song-Cycles

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
On Wenlock Edge
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
The Curlew
Five Nursery Jingles
The Birds
The Fairest May
The Water Lily
Mourn no Moe
My Gostly Fader
James Griffett (tenor)
The Haffner String Quartet (Trevor Williams and Neil Watson (violins), George Turnlund (viola), Olga Hegedus (cello))
Beryl Ball (piano)
Mary Murdoch (cor anglais)
Mary Ryan (flute)
rec. Christ Church, Chelsea (Warlock); Purcell Room (RVW) 1973. ADD.
REGIS RRC 1316 [64:47]

Some people are intolerant of the voice of Ian Partridge; not me. For me his seemingly indefatigable breath control and pristine enunciation made his Finzi Intimations and Warlock Curlew first recommendations. I sought out any recordings by Partridge and still hope that the archives will produce recordings of Dies Natalis and Oh Fair to See as well as the Gurney-Housman song-cycles for tenor and ensemble. Others dislike his rather ‘white’ and bleached sound. That's not the way I hear it but I do understand the criticism.

A very fine tenor with a related but slightly different vocal signature is James Griffett. Griffett and Partridge sang in the same vocal ensemble - Pro Cantione Antiqua - profusely recorded by DG Archiv in the 1970s and later. Griffett is of the same broad stripe as Partridge but there is about his voice a greater infusion of testosterone and the merest shading of vibrato. That serves us and him well especially in the RVW On Wenlock Edge. Griffett has a clarion voice above the instrumental ensemble in On Wenlock Edge - plying the saplings double indeed. The colouring of the voice in Is my team ploughing carries a stronger emotional flame than Partridge in the dialogue between the living and the ‘betrayed’ dead. The harsh snarl of evasive betrayal is more vibrant with Griffett. The ensemble playing is not as polished as that of the Music Group of London in the classic EMI recording with Partridge but it is still very good.

There have been several newer recordings including a fine ones by Adrian Thompson (with the superb Gurney Housman cycles also with ensemble (Hyperion Helios), Rolfe-Johnson (Naxos) Richard Dowling (Herald) and Richard Edgar-Wilson (Somm). Partridge's tranced Bredon Hill takes some beating, even by Griffett. I liked the darker steady smouldering tobacco of Griffett's voice in Clun. Would that he, and for that matter Gerald English, had recorded more English song. It would have been good to hear him in the songs of Geoffrey Bush, in Finzi’s Intimations and in Gurney’s two Housman cycles with instrumental ensemble.

The Curlew is Warlock's masterpiece. Not just that: it is the finest English song-cycle in the literature. Its vinegar-sharp, tear-seared melancholy is searchingly sweet and poignant. It is a visionary piece and the players here do not short-change it at all. The instrumental playing is better than for On Wenlock Edge. More in your face than the EMI Partridge/MGL (review) this makes for a refreshing change. I noted also that Griffett sings the words “The boughs have withered because I have told them my dreams” where Partridge whispers them. Warlock’s bar-defying and awkward placement of words against the moving canvas of the music is deftly handled by Griffett. This version remains an extraordinarily intense and tenderly individual alternative. The towering sound grips the listener and the tenor’s dynamic range is well accommodated. On headphones one can once or twice hear the distant whine of traffic noise or the chirrup of birdsong. This recording has been in circulation since first issued on LP (originally Pearl?) in the early 1970s and with good reason. Other versions are Adrian Thompson (Naxos) modern DDD sound and bargain price though the beat in Thompson’s voice will not please everyone and two fascinating historicals: René Soames (Divine Art - historical) and John Armstrong (Pearl).

The Nursery Jingles (also with quartet and flute) are slender but pleasing things. The other songs with string quartet and either or both flute or cor anglais will soon entwine your affections. Mourn no moe, Sleep and My Gostly Fader with string quartet are in Warlock’s antiquarian mode with the latter a shade more ‘contemporary’ and touching in expression. The Birds is a poignant prayer. The Water Lily (same specification and as slow as The Curlew) is typically melancholic and complex. Griffett relishes the saucy jollity of Chopcherry and the violin’s valedictory hiccup is a smiling delight. The Fairest May with its refrain “That ever I saw” and its wheezing delicate Hungarian-Highlands skirls is in the same vein.

No printed sung texts are provided but Griffett is clear as a bell so this not a problem.

These are classic recordings of English song with instrumental ensemble. Do not be put off by their nearly forty year old analogue origins. At this price do not miss out on this cherishable disc.
If you like Griffett's voice you might also like to track down the following Griffett discs on Regis:-

RRC 1023 Victorian Gentleman's Songbook
RRC 1083 Edwardian Gentleman's Songbook
RRC 1054 Britten folksong arrangements
RRC 1092 Irish tenor ballads
RRC 1057 What is Life?
RRC 1112 British Folk Songs for Tenor

Rob Barnett

Classic and very individual recordings of English song. Do not be put off by their nearly forty year old analogue origins.

Review index: Ralph Vaughan Williams