Martin SHAW (1875-1958)
The Airmen & other songs
see end of review for track listing
Sophie Bevan (soprano); Andrew Kennedy (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone); Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 1-3 May, 2011, Sir Michael Tippett Centre, Bath Spa University. DDD
English texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34105 [77:35]
Martin Shaw, an almost exact contemporary of Vaughan Williams, is something of a forgotten figure these days. In his lifetime his friends numbered not only RVW but also John Ireland. Benjamin Britten, never easy to please, commissioned Shaw to write an anthem for the Aldeburgh Festival of 1948 - the first-ever Festival commission. This information and much else is contained in the very interesting booklet note by Professor George Odam, whose enthusiasm for Shaw’s music was behind this recording.
Shaw’s name as a composer is largely kept alive these days through the usually short anthems that he wrote for liturgical use as well as some sturdy hymn tunes. The best known of these is probably Hills of the North, Rejoice - the tune is known as Little Cornard - but among his catalogue of some 300 compositions there are more than seventy solo songs. Iain Burnside and his trio of excellent young British singers here offer thirty-six of them, so we have about half of Shaw’s song output. In a preface to the booklet Burnside writes of the “singability” of these songs and that, it seems to me, hits the nail right on the head.
Burnside also comments on Shaw’s military songs, which he regards as the composer’s greatest achievement. There are songs here from both World Wars, starting with Venizel, which sets a poem written by one Captain W. A. Short (d. 1917). Short’s poem was written while he was on active service in the early days of the war - it was published in The Times in November 1914 - and the final stanza reflects the patriotic optimism of those early days of the conflict. The preceding three verses, however, are more bittersweet in tone, as is the music. It seems to me to be a quintessential early twentieth-century English song and Roderick Williams sings it beautifully. By 1919, however, things were rather different and Kipling’s Pity the Poor Fighting Men reflects on the human cost of war. This song is entrusted to Andrew Kennedy, who is clear-toned and whose sound falls pleasingly on the ear, not least the soft sustained final note.
The Airmen comes from the Second World War; it’s the song that gives the album its title. This is a dramatic, mainly vigorous song about the Battle of Britain. Roderick Williams’ tone and diction are first class. Also from the 1939-45 conflict is Jack Overdue and here we first encounter Sophie Bevan. She makes a nice sound but I felt she sounded perhaps a touch matronly; is not a lighter, more ‘girlish’ tone appropriate for this song?
Not all the songs can be dated precisely but, assuming that the undated ones were published in reasonable proximity to their composition then this collection ranges from 1914 to 1942 with most of them in the period 1919 to 1924. One notices that Shaw chooses quite a wide range of poets to set. There are the ‘usual suspects’ such as Shakespeare, Kipling, Christina Rossetti and Yeats - though Housman is conspicuous by his absence. However, there are some much more esoteric choices. I can’t readily recall hearing before any settings of Mabel Dearmer (The Bubble Song) or Judge (Edward Abbott) Perry (The Dip Party). Both are gently humorous settings, the latter well characterised by Williams. Also unfamiliar to me is John Pride, the poet of Old Clothes and Fine Clothes. That song is something of a tongue-twister, as is Kipling’s Heffle Cuckoo Fair. Williams and Kennedy respectively articulate them well.
Mention of articulation brings me to the one criticism I have of this disc. The two gentlemen sing with impeccably clear diction but even when following the texts closely I had trouble quite often in making out Sophie Bevan’s words. This may be a technical failing pure and simple. However, I noticed that once or twice it sounded as if she was set further back from the microphone than her colleagues with a little more resonance around the voice. As it happens, I’ve been present at several concerts in the Sir Michael Tippett Centre at Bath Spa University. It’s a good, modern hall, not overly big and I would have thought all three singers would have been recorded in identical positions relative to the microphone so perhaps I’m hearing something that’s not there. However, for whatever reason Miss Bevan’s diction is often less than ideally clear and that’s a pity because she makes a very pleasing sound. In fairness, she does very well articulating the words of The Merry Wanderer, a Shakespeare setting, but I like her best in items such as The Land of Heart’s Desire, a touching Yeats setting which she sings with fine expression and tone. I also enjoyed her account of Shaw’s touching response to Shakespeare’s words in Come Away, Death.
I admired the way Andrew Kennedy delivers The Conjuration. This is a strange song. The words are after the Chinese of Hung-So-Fan (1812-1861) and the accompaniment is very spare indeed. Kennedy spins a lovely, well controlled and sustained vocal line. He’s good also in the delicate The Rivulet as he is in the expressive, quintessentially English Perilous Ways and in the touching Christmas song, The World’s Delight. He also has The Little Waves of Breffny. This is a big song in relation to most of the others on the disc and it encompasses quite a range of moods. Kennedy gives an admirable performance.
Many of the plums fall - as they so often do in English song - to the baritone. I’ve already referred to Venizel. Another memorable song is the Kipling setting, Brookland Road. I think this is one of the best songs on the disc and Roderick Williams makes a very fine job of it. He deploys a discreet rustic accent, which I think works well, and does full justice to what is an expressive song fit to take its place in the lineage of twentieth-century English art songs. He’s also splendid in the delightful Child of The Flowing Tide. He also has perhaps the most distinctive song in the collection, Wood Magic. This is a setting of words by John Buchan. George Odam describes it as “eerily pantheistic” and it’s quite unlike anything else on this disc. The music is very original and distils a rarefied atmosphere. The performance by Roderick Williams is very involving. Incidentally, I was delighted to find that Williams is including all four of these songs together with Old Clothes and Fine Clothes in a recital which he’s giving on 26 July 2012 at the Three Choirs Festival so I hope that means he’s taking some of Martin Shaw’s songs into his regular repertoire.
Surely that’s a key function of such a disc as this: not only to bring the songs to the attention of listeners but also to get other singers to notice them. I don’t believe I knew any of these songs before I received this disc for review but I’m delighted to have encountered them. I presume that most, if not all, are being recorded for the first time. If so Shaw could scarcely wish for better posthumous advocacy. I’ve been remiss in that I’ve commented on all three singers but have made no reference to the piano playing of Iain Burnside. Let me make amends by reporting that it’s consistently splendid; but, then, we’ve come to expect nothing less from him. I suspect it was he who made most of the repertoire choices for this programme. These are discerning and give us a nice, varied picture of Shaw, the song composer.
On the evidence of this disc where does Martin Shaw sit in the pantheon of English song composers? I have to say that these songs don’t really plumb the depths in the way that composers such as Finzi, Gurney or Britten do. Nor is there the exaltation that we can find in some of the songs of Finzi, for example. However, what Shaw does share with those peers is a fine sensitivity to words and his music seems an adroit fit with the texts he selects. Moreover, there’s a genuine melodic impulse behind each of these songs. In addition, I rather think that these songs are good to sing - one comes back to Iain Burnside’s comment about “singability”. I think I’d be inclined to bracket him with Michael Head and Roger Quilter, composers of highly enjoyable songs - both for the listener and the performer - whose art is fairly gentle and unassuming. Like Quilter and Head, Shaw’s songs may not be of the first rank but they are well worth hearing - and singing -and would fully justify their inclusion in a short group in a recital, just as Roderick Williams plans to do for his Three Choirs audience.
This disc should find a hearty welcome from all who love English song; it certainly merits a place in such collections. I congratulate the performers - and Delphian - on their enterprise in recording these songs and giving a wider public the opportunity to appreciate them. Might there be scope for a second volume?
This disc can be heartily recommended to all who love English song.
Venizel (1914) [2:44]
Jack Overdue (1942) [1:40]
The Melodies You Sing (1933) [1:08]
The Airmen (1941) [2:59]
Over the Sea (pub. 1917) [1:37]
Pity the Poor Fighting Men (1919) [2:32]
The Egg-Shell (1919) [1:42]
The Land of Heart’s Desire (1917) [2:11]
The Conjuration (1925) [2:04]
The Merry Wanderer (pub. 1922) [1:21]
Bab-Lock-Hythe (pub. 1919) [2:24]
Child of The Flowing Tide (1919) [1:54]
Full Fathom Five (pub. 1923) [2:08]
Bird or Beast? (pub. 1917) [2:00]
The Little Waves of Breffny (pub. 1924) [3:14]
Come Away, Death (1919) [2:19]
Brookland Road (1919) [4:44]
Summer (pub. 1917) [2:25]
The Bubble Song (1919) [1:33]
The Dip Party (1924) [1:26]
The Rivulet (pub. 1924) [1:08]
I Know a Bank (pub. 1923) [1:51]
Perilous Ways (1932) [2:33]
Heffle Cuckoo Fair (1919) [1:08]
Old Clothes and Fine Clothes (1922) [1:09]
Over the Sea with the Soldier (pub. 1927) [2:00]
When Daisies Pied (1921) [1:02]
At Columbine’s Grave (pub. 1922) [2:25]
Wood Magic (9th Century) (1924) [4:02]
Tides (1923) [2:09]
Ye Banks and Braes (1925) [2:16]
The Accursed Wood (1927) [1:54]
The World’s Delight (1930) [3:28]
The Banks of Allan Water (1924) [2:53]
Invictus (1920) [2:10]
Cuckoo (1915) [1:02]