Songs Now : British Songs of the 21st Century
David POWER (b.1962)
Eight Evening Songs (2004-07) [12:03]
Opened Spaces (2007) [4:00]
Memory of Place (2010) [9:31]
Six Songs of Old Japanese Wisdom (2007) [10:31]
Peter REYNOLDS (b.1958)
Adieu to All Alluring Toys (2011) [4:32]
Songs for Don (2007) [15:41]
William Rhys MEEK (b.1963)
Winter is a Slow Death Waiting (2010) [3:46]
Three Songs (2001-09) [7:43]
Paul Carey Jones (baritone)
Ian Ryan (piano)
rec. National Centre for Early Music, York, 2011. DDD
MERIDIAN CDE 84614 [67:50]
If this album of contemporary songs by British composers does indeed reflect 21st century Britain, as the title promises, then Britain must be a rather sombre, serious place, with little warmth or contentment. 'Winter is a slow death waiting', as one of the songs has it.
One of the featured composers, David Power, provides introductory notes, in which he offers the following contextualisation: "In recent decades, the influence of the European avant-garde has receded, the influence of rock music has become ever stronger and British composers seem to have become more at ease with stylistic diversity as well as with their own national musical heritage." There are some very big assumptions in that statement, but Power - whose biographical note says that his "initial interest was rock music but the electronic instrumentals on David Bowie's album Low prompted a change in direction" - is more controversial when he reports an informal audience vote at a recent festival in England indicating the public's preference for the kind of new song featured here over the established masterpieces of Britten, Quilter, Finzi, Bridge and Butterworth.
If that is the case, sales of this CD should do very well, but given the predominantly conservative nature of 'classical' audiences, it does seem rather unlikely. The texts set here are all contemporary in character, chiefly elliptic or cryptic, with minimum or obscure prosody. Many range from the slightly pretentious to the very pretentious, and beyond that to the pointless. An example of the former is The Waiting by Jane MacNamee: "The waiting/ the waiting/ spilled into me/ The world is a stranger without you." (The end). The second verse of Instinct, a translated haiku by Kobayashi Issa, gives an example of pointless: "lightning flash -/ not giving a damn/ the toad's face". The best poetry is to be found in the three more traditional-themed texts - ironically anonymous - of Peter Reynolds' Adieu to All Alluring Toys, and in the eight by Don Walls set by Steve Crowther in Songs for Don, which are modern/urban but easily comprehensible. One of them, incidentally - 'Junkie' - is a rather graphic portrayal of a drug addict's lot, and does include the F-word.
However bad or good, in all cases the poems are improved by their settings, which, though often atonal and modernistically jerky, are full of atmosphere, adventure and bite from beginning to end. All these composers, on this admittedly scant evidence, seem to have something to say to 21st century audiences - provided they can find them!
Cardiff-born baritone Paul Carey Jones has a fine, powerful voice. He deals with the many technical and expressive difficulties posed by these composers very well, on the whole - as for example in the opening of David Lancaster's Memory of Place. His enunciation is impressively lucid, aided in no small part by some very thoughtfully written scores. His vowels are inevitably coloured Welsh, but not to any distracting degree. His Rs are nearly always heavily rolled, which comes across as something of an affectation after a while. He has also done his homework: in Reynolds' Adieu, he does not rhyme 'saith' (the archaic third person singular present of say) with 'faith', which is for the eyes only, and elsewhere he correctly pronounces the Austrian city Graz. Ian Ryan, like Jones making his debut recording for Meridian, follows the latter's lead attentively and cogently in what is at times rather unforgiving music.
Sound quality is very good, as it ought to be from a label who, in their own words, "continue to astound listeners and artists with our stylish and captivating recordings using our revered 'natural sound' technique."
Those suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder might do well to avoid this disc, but in other respects this is a decent product. Waverers can download the booklet for free from Meridian's website here.
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If this album does indeed reflect 21st century Britain then it must be a rather sombre, serious place, with little warmth or contentment.
see also review by Rob Barnett