Raymond Warren is one of those composers who have devoted much of their working life to heading up music departments in British universities. As a consequence of which, quite wrongly, the perception is one of a teacher who composes as opposed to the other way around. Much the same judgement was made of the likes of John Joubert, Kenneth Leighton and even, to a degree, Alun Hoddinott. The expanding discographies of those composers are setting to rights that pre-conception but Warren’s discography remains disappointingly small. There is an important body of work that deserves to be far better known. As far as I can tell this seems to be the first disc devoted to a range of the composer’s works. Warren was Professor of Music at Bristol University until 1994 but this disc has been released under the auspices of the University of Hertfordshire and very good it is too.
Here is Warren writing about his music; “... most of my music is “pure” and little that is programmatic can be said in words about it. When the starting point has been extra-musical it has usually been concerned with timeless issues such as love, hope, childhood, old age, suffering, visionary spirituality or just plain comedy, all no doubt approached with a 20th century sensibility.” I quote that in full because it provides a wonderfully succinct and accurate description of the music here. Yes, Warren does use modern compositional techniques and styles – the 20th century sensibility referred to – but the central motivational forces of his music are the great common human experiences regardless of time or place.
The work that opens the disc – A Lough Neagh Sequence - is unusual in one respect yet typical in another. Unusual because it is an accompaniment – setting would give the wrong implication – to a cycle of Seamus Heaney poems. Ostensibly the cycle deals with the life-cycle of the eel but clearly this applies to all of life and the struggles it contains. As with many poets protective of their work, Heaney did not want the rhythms of the verse disturbed by the fixing of words to a musical pulse. Warren’s solution is to provide a musical commentary that runs in parallel with the words without imposing musical choices on them. Superficially the solo piano part sounds quite simple, almost minimalist – occasionally illustrating a moment or a mood or some of the time seemingly quite separate. There is little overlapping of verse and music – Warren likens it in his liner-note to having poems interspersed with piano interludes - and when they do the spoken verse is allowed total freedom to pace and point the words as the speaker sees fit. Having the poet himself speak the verses adds enormously to the impact of the work. Whilst Heaney does favour the slightly dead-pan spoken style that poets speaking their own verse do, his natural lilt and total ease with the subtle inner rhythms and rhyme schemes makes the fusion of two art-forms seem totally natural and effective. Pianist Phillip Mead, both here and in the following Piano Sonata is likewise utterly at ease with the idiom and impressive in his technical execution. The voice is favoured – to my taste overly so – in the balance, and the piano sounds a little light in the bass although that does have the effect of emphasising the agile nimbleness of much of the writing. I am not sure I have ever heard another piece quite like this – it is far removed from standard ‘melodramas’ in their literal sense but it’s a delight and wholly effective.
The 1977 Piano Sonata is pure music with no extra-musical associations. Warren characterises it as having “distant neo-classical” influences. The three movements are titled Monody, Caprice and Chaconne which together form a tersely argued and compact seventeen minute work. There is an austerity here which resembles the minimalism of the piano writing in the previous poem sequence but there that is leavened by the humanity of the spoken word. Warren does not seem to wish to write music of overt display; structure and content are more important than gesture or effect. As might be inferred from the title, Monody makes little use of ‘vertical’ writing – much of the time there are just two voices at work – high and low to put it simplistically. There are harmonic implications as soon as two notes are played together but key to this movement are the horizontal arguments. The central Caprice functions as both a slow movement and scherzo although the material so overlaps that the two co-exist rather than sit side by side. By the time the final Chaconne is reached the writing is thicker and complex. There is a certain emotional coolness to the earlier parts of the Sonata but here there is more drama too and, over the course of the seven of so minutes of its length, it builds to a powerful climax. As mentioned before – pianist Phillip Mead is totally at ease with the music and proves to be impressive both technically and musically. Without the speaker the balance seems to have brought the piano a little more forward. This is not the most beautiful piano sound I have ever heard captured on disc but it is more than acceptable.
For me the highlight of this recital by some way is the song-cycle for soprano and chamber orchestra In My Childhood which closes the disc. This shows that Warren has a superb ear for instrumental colour and word-painting. The words are by another Irish poet – this time Louis MacNeice – and reflect his enduring fascination with childhood both the joyful and the dark. It is this exploration that Warren exploits quite brilliantly so when the singer says; “When I was five the black dreams came, Nothing after was quite the same” the strings shudder with sympathetic dread. Examples of this kind of subtle association between word and note are far too many to enumerate here. The five songs in the cycle form a very gratifying group. The central nocturnal Cradle Song for Miriam – again listen for the delightful way the harp and timps are the ticking clock and the sinuous strings the winding wool in the opening line “the clock’s untiring fingers wind the wool of darkness” – is flanked by a pair of quirky nursery rhyme-esque scherzos. They in turn are bookended by a pair of poems of a more ambivalent character. Unlike the Heaney all the texts are provided here, and what wonderful poems they prove to be. Warren comments – and I’ll agree with him – that he is surprised MacNeice has not been chosen more often as a source of song texts. In an autobiographical note Warren cites Britten and Tippett as formative influences of his younger years – he was a pupil of the latter as well as studying with Lennox Berkeley. Particularly in the field of the English song-cycle post-War it is hard not to draw comparisons with Britten’s vocal music but I have not compared Warren’s music to others for the simple reason that it is very much its own master. By writing in this idiom there are going to be passing similarities but they are passing and no more than that. Curiously, the one parallel that did spring to mind – and this is not to do with musical vocabulary but rather the nature of the texts and the emotional world they inhabit; sophisticated naivety might be the term – are Copland’s settings of Emily Dickinson.
The performers here are uniformly excellent. Soprano Olivia Robertson has an ideally agile and clear-ringing soprano voice that makes light work of the occasionally angular nature of Warren’s vocal lines. Her diction is absolutely first rate – every single word of these far from straightforward songs is sung with superb clarity. The University of Hertfordshire Chamber Ensemble play Warren’s demanding writing with considerable flair – just once or twice some of the string passage-work might have benefited from an additional take to improve ensemble and unanimity of attack. The balance and acoustic is very good and the whole performance is directed with good control and attention to detail by Robin Browning. Running to about twenty-eight minutes this would seem to be an ideal item to programme in a concert wanting to avoid the usual round of Les Illuminations and the like. There are not that many British 20th century song-cycles of this calibre. It is to be hoped that this recording will help the promotion of Warren’s music in general and of this work in particular.
I have to admit a personal interest here; Warren has written six operas – two of which, Let My People Go and St. Patrick were commissioned by the Liverpool Education Authority and first performed by the Liverpool Schools Symphony Orchestra. I was a very junior member of the orchestra for the first – my first experience of a big ‘serious’ piece of new music at the age of about 12, and led the orchestra by the time we performed the latter – another fantastic experience. It was opportunities like that that resulted ultimately in me pursuing a career in music. Looking back it is both fascinating and rather wonderful to realise that at pretty much the same time Warren was writing works for the Liverpool school-children that inspired and challenged but were also eminently practical and playable by us he was writing this abstract and powerful music too. Surely the sign of a great composer is one who is able to write music of vastly different styles and demands which remain fundamentally true to their basic philosophies. This is Hindemith's philosophy of gebrauchsmusik for the modern age.
The disc's liner-note benefits from having the composer's own brief insights into the works as well as biographies of him and the two Irish poets. A more detailed independent analysis of the music would have been a substantial benefit. I assume the absence of the Heaney texts is a question of copyright which, while understandable, does diminish their impact. Visiting the composer's website at www.raymondwarrren.com makes one realise that there is a substantial body of work in just about all genres that demands revisiting and reappraisal.
This is a disc of fascinating music with one real discovery. I trust that this will prove to a herald of many more discs.