Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
see end of review for track listing
Susan Bickley (mezzo)
Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. June 2008, Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk
English texts included
NAXOS 8.572151 [71:36]
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 appropriate conclusion.
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.
John Quinn 

See also review by Jonathan Woolf

A very fine recital containing many first rate Gurney songs. 

Track listing
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]
Snow [2:03]
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]
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