One of many reasons that I’m glad I moved to live in Gloucestershire
over 25 years ago is that I came to know not only the songs
of Ivor Gurney but also the countryside in which he grew up
and which so often fired his imagination. Gurney is one of the
finest of all English song composers. Not only is his music
memorable, enhancing the texts and drawing out the meanings
they contain, but also he had a perspicacious eye for suitable
texts to set. Indeed, perhaps only Finzi has matched his literary
knowledge and discrimination. Not even Finzi had the advantage
possessed by Gurney of being a poet in his own right.
Though many female singers perform songs by Gurney, both in
recital and on disc, I’m not aware of many - if any -
CDs entirely devoted to his songs on which the singer is a lady.
If for no other reason than that, therefore, this recital by
Susan Bickley would be welcome but its overall excellence makes
it doubly welcome. She includes one or two songs that, in truth,
are really songs for men to sing. One such is definitely By
a bierside. This magnificent song moves from a gravely noble
beginning to a defiantly proclamatory conclusion - or, rather,
near conclusion since, in a masterstroke, Gurney then ends the
song quietly. Miss Bickley sings the song very well indeed but
I can’t help feeling that it is better suited to a voice
such as James Rutherford’s (review).
I think the same is true of I will go with my father a-ploughing;
for all her artistry a male voice is to be preferred here, though
others may disagree.
No such reservations, however, about most of the programme and
certainly not about the Five Elizabethan Songs. Gurney
called these settings of sixteenth-century English poems his
‘Elizas’ and they’re among his finest. Bickley
does them really well. In particular she conveys the melancholy
of ‘Tears’ very successfully in a subtle performance.
As for the exquisite ‘Sleep’, surely one of the
gems of English song, she sings this with great sensitively
and control while Iain Burnside’s playing of the magically
atmospheric piano part enhances the stature of the performance
even further. I also like the deft, smiling account of ‘Under
the Greenwood Tree’.
The programme includes two first recordings. The bonnie Earl
of Murray is a 17th century Scots ballad. It’s
a good setting, and it’s projected characterfully. Though
well worth hearing, the song isn’t in the same league
as the other ballad on the disc, Cathleen ni Houlihan.
The other première recording is The cherry
trees, a setting of just four lines by Edward Thomas. It’s
a touching little song and over too soon.
Among other items that gave me pleasure, I like the comparison
in the notes between The Apple Orchard and a Britten
cabaret song: how apt! Burnside weights the piano part to perfection.
All night under the moon suits Susan Bickley’s
voice admirably and she delivers it really well, deploying lovely
tone and enunciating the words very clearly - both these features
are strongly in evidence throughout. A Cradle Song,
one of several Yeats settings, is another song that fits her
voice really well. This gentle song is very nicely done. Fain
would I change that note is the text which Roger Quilter
set as Fair House of Joy, one of his finest songs. Gurney’s
take on the words is impetuous and rhapsodic. Bickley and Burnside
give it an urgent performance but I find Quilter’s the
more memorable of the two settings. Gurney’s ending is
surprisingly low-key, which is mildly disappointing.
Near the end of the disc we find a brace of Robert Bridges settings.
When death to either shall come is a touching
little poem which Gurney sets with a becoming blend of restraint
and feeling. Thou didst delight my eyes, which Finzi
set as a part-song, is a more ambitious poem and calls forth
a more ambitious musical response from Gurney. The present performance
is very committed. To close the recital we are offered another
Thomas setting, Lights out, from the cycle of the same
name. This is a wonderful song - Gurney at his best. The sensitive
performance by singer and pianist typifies their approach to
all thirty songs here. As such it makes a very satisfying and
I enjoyed this disc enormously. Susan Bickley’s singing
gives consistent pleasure. Her tone is full and warm and the
restrained way in which she deploys vibrato is one reason, I’m
sure, why her diction is very clear throughout. She understands
these songs and sings them with great sensitivity and intelligence.
Iain Burnside offers a fine contribution. I thought I detected
one very slight finger slip near the end of By a bierside
but otherwise his pianism is excellent and contributes significantly
to the success of the recital.
The recording took place in Potton Hall, which has become something
of a venue of choice for song recital recordings in recent years.
The sound on this occasion is very satisfactory. The documentation
includes very useful notes by Roderic Dunnett. At the top of
this review it says that the texts are included but that is
only half the story - literally. Naxos print the texts for 15
out of the 30 songs - exactly half. The remainder are not reproduced
“for copyright reasons”, which I suspect is a euphemism
for the fact that they’d have to pay royalties. I fully
understand the need for cost control but this does seem to me
to be a bit cheeseparing. The texts are important and, despite
Miss Bickley’s excellent diction a good number of them
are unfamiliar. It would have been more than useful if one had
been able to follow all of them.
That one caveat aside, this is a very fine recital containing
many first rate songs. Lovers of English song should not hesitate.
See also review by Jonathan
On the Downs [1:52]
Ha'nacker Mill [2:19]
The bonnie Earl of Murray [1:48]
The cherry trees [1:07]
By a bierside (1916) [3:59]
Five Elizabethan Songs (1913-14) [12:45]
The Apple Orchard from Seven Sappho Songs (1919)[1:09]
All night under the moon [3:12]
The Latmian Shepherd [3:45]
I will go with my father a-ploughing [2:26]
Last Hours [3:42]
Cathleen ni Houlihan (1919) [2:56]
A Cradle Song [2:27]
The Fiddler of Dooney (1918) [1:55]
The Singer [2:25]
Nine of the clock [0:53]
Epitaph in Old Mode (1920) [2:17]
The Ship [2:20]
The Scribe [2:40]
Fain would I change that note (1918) [2:45]
An Epitaph [1:50]
When death to either shall come (1920) [1:32]
Thou didst delight my eyes (1921) [2:05]
The boat is chafing (1920) [1:28]
Lights out (1919) [3:55]