Charles Wilfred ORR (1893-1976)
The Complete C.W. Orr Songbook - Volume 2
Five Songs from A Shropshire Lad: With rue my heart is laden, This time of year, Oh, when I was in love with you, Is my team ploughing?, On your midnight pallet lying (1924-6) [12:09]
Plucking the rushes (1921) [1:43]
Four Songs: Bahnhofstrasse; Requiem, The time of roses, Since thou, O fondest and truest, (1932-57) [12:16]
Hymn before sleep (1953) [4:32]
While summer on is sleeping (1953) [2:30]
The lads in their hundreds (1936) [2:51]
The Isle of Portland (1938) [3:30]
1887 (?) [4:38]
In valleys green and still (1952) [3:57]
Three Songs from A Shropshire Lad: Into my heart an air that kills, Westward on the high-hilled plains, Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers (1935-29) [11:38]
Mark Stone (baritone); Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 5-6 November 2011
STONE RECORDS 5060192780192 [59:52]

I purchased Volume 1 of the complete C.W. Orr Songbook earlier this year and I was not especially or consistently impressed. I think that it was a possible combination of what gradually seemed like too much slow music in a similar mood, second-rate and occasionally uninspired settings some rather short and disconnected and some typos in the booklet. When volume two dropped onto my doormat I was not totally well disposed to it. Also Orr’s rather privileged background made me think that he was hopelessly out of touch with the ordinary country folk so often featured in the lines of his most often set poet, A.E. Housman. In addition a composer who only manages to write forty something songs and a few other trifles in a long lifetime seemed to me to lack a certain altruism, composing only on a personal whim for a small coterie of the converted.
With this second volume I have mostly completely revised these thoughts. Surely most composers write too much anyway and in fact why not write (as indeed I often have) for those whom you know directly and who appreciate your style and sensibilities. What does it matter if a composer has a favourite poet, a partnership can be formed even across the generations in which the meaning between the lines is conjured up by the melodies and harmonies allowing a greater depth of meaning to emerge. That is what C.W.Orr achieved in his handful of often miniature masterpieces.
It is quite clear that Mark Stone’s approach is totally sympathetic. He clearly believes in this composer and subtly but determinedly sets about presenting each song on its own terms with understanding and clarity.
We start with Five Housman Songs written at various moments during the 1920s including ‘Is my team ploughing’ which emphasises, more than Butterworth’s famous setting, a sense of conversation and disillusion. The cycle opens with the gorgeous With Rue my heart is Laden composed in the south of France but redolent of a fading England.
It’s not all Housman. Indeed the earliest surviving Orr song of 1921 is a setting of a translation of an ancient Chinese poem Plucking the rushes with its rippling piano part and floaty melody. The variety found in this second Orr volume is exemplified by the fact that his very last song is also included. From 1957 comes Since then, O fondest and truest a poem by Bridges is set with noble grandiloquence. Sadly, it is, for me rather unmemorable and one of the few songs which I feel Mark Stone struggles with both technically and musically.
There is also a setting of James Joyce written for a compilation volume ‘The Joyce Book’ with thirteen composers represented including Ireland, Moean and Bliss. Orr’s piece is marked by a bell-like ostinato in the right hand piano part. It’s followed by Requiem the same text set over thirty years later by Herbert Howells on the death of President Kennedy, ‘Take him earth for Cherishing’ from Helen Waddell’s new at the time medieval Latin Lyrics and beloved of many composers. He dipped into it again for, what Mark Stone describes in his excellent booklet notes to each song as “a soporific” account of Prudentius’ poem in translation Hymn before Sleep and also for While summer on is sleeping which amazingly for such a seemingly English-feeling love-lyric comes from the Carmina Burana manuscript.
With the last seven tacks we are back in the world of Housman. The song 1887 is an embarrassment. Mark Stone has taken Orr’s string piece ‘A Cotswold Hill tune’ and put words to it. He chose an early poem of Housman written for the Queen’s jubilee of 1887. It ends ‘And God will save the Queen’. Not only are words quite trite but also the music is unmemorable. This is all that is lacklustre about English music of the time. The following track In Valleys Green and still is Orr’s last Housman setting. By 1952 lads going off to die needlessly in war must have started to appear a little anachronistic. In addition I feel that Orr is just going through the motions here with something that no longer appears to be so deeply felt.
Finally there’s a group of Three Housman songs, which brings the set of two discs to an appropriate close. These come from the end of what I feel is his best period, the 1920s-1930s. Accompaniments are as important as melody, a comment that applies to most of these settings and the mood is always evocatively captured. Perhaps it’s Into my heart an air that kills that will be the one song I will most recall from these two discs.
It’s wonderful that Stone and Lepper, a true interweaving of two outstanding musicians, have brought these songs to light. If at times I have found their performances a little over earnest, the experience has been elevated by some magical moments as, for example, the end of Hymn Before Sleep.
No lover of English song should omit the purchasing of at least one of these two discs. I would suggest that this one is the more appealing choice.

Gary Higginson 

No lover of English song should omit the purchasing of at least one of these two discs.

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