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Season Songs
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Winter Words, op.52 (1953) [21:08]
John PARRY (b.1930)
Six Songs to poems by Catherina Marriott (1992) [14:00]
Ben PARRY (b.1965)
Season Songs to poems by Cecil Lay (2008)* [13:48]
Andrew LEACH (b.1954)
Four Songs to poems by R.S. Thomas (1976)** [10:01]
Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor); Eugene Asti (piano) (Britten and John Parry); Andrew Leach (piano) (Leach); Sam Wilson (marimba)
rec. 8-9 December 2010, Potton Hall, Suffolk; 12-13 December 2011, Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk (Winter Words)
Detailed Track-Listing at end of review
EM RECORDS EMR CD014 [58:57]

This CD has been put together with great love and imagination. We have, firstly, what is arguably Britten’s finest song-cycle, his Thomas Hardy settings, Winter Words. Those are then followed by three somewhat more recent cycles or groups, all by living composers. John Parry’s witty songs set delightful East Anglian poems by Catherine Marriott - who, though born in Yorkshire, claims to have been happily ‘Suffolk-ated’. Ben Parry’s Season Songs are for voice and marimba - a combination I’ve never come across before, but which works wonderfully well. The accompaniment to Autumn is quite extraordinarily atmospheric, a low, murmuring tremolo that is felt as much as heard.
The final group is by Andrew Leach, Four Songs to poems by the ‘man who went into the West’, R.S. Thomas. These fine settings make an ideal conclusion, largely because the spiritual and poetic link between Hardy and Thomas is so strong. The third song, The Hearth, is a particularly powerful one. The way its comfortable opening grows to a climax of agonised protest reminded me strongly of Britten’s Auden setting, Out on the lawn I lie in bed from the Spring Symphony
That’s interesting because it made me realise that the shade of Britten is felt strongly as a presence throughout this disc. A few years back, that might have been seen as a problem. Nowadays, and particularly this year, it is somehow reassuring to find that Britten’s approach to song-writing and word-setting lives on, albeit expressed through new personalities. None of these talented composers is imitating slavishly yet each appears to have many of the same priorities as Britten. These include identifying strongly with the poem’s ‘atmosphere’: creating a vocal line that reflects but is not governed by, the prosody: and, perhaps above all, providing an accompaniment that not only illumines the subject but which is in many ways the expressive core of the new creation: the song.
The singer is Richard Edgar-Wilson, an experienced and well-established recital and concert soloist. There is outstanding musicianship on display here, not least in the accomplished and stylish contributions of Edgar-Wilson. Yet my admiration makes it harder for me to confess that I find some of his singing difficult to listen to, let alone enjoy. He has a tendency to ‘switch on’ the often very wide, fast vibrato, a feature common in ‘show singers’, and not comfortable in this sort of repertoire. As the volume increases, he sometimes acquires a strangulated quality, possibly not helped by the very close recording. When Edgar-Wilson sings quietly, or uses mezza-voce, as at the beginning of The Choirmaster’s Burial or January, the effect is magical, colouring the music in a most memorable way. There is no doubting the fine musical intelligence behind this voice, so the occasional infelicities do stand out rather sharply.
All in all, then, a mixed experience. Despite my reservations, there is so much to enjoy here, and I am grateful to have been introduced to these fine new cycles.
Gwyn Parry-Jones 

Britten discography & review index: Winter Words
Detailed Track-Listing
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Winter Words, op.52
1. At Day-close in November
2. Midnight on the Great Western (or The Journeying Boy)
3. Wagtail and Baby (A Satire)
4. The Little Old Table
5. The Choirmaster’s Burial (or The Tenor Man’s Story)
6. Proud Songsters (Thrushes, Finches and Nightingales)
7. At the Railway Station, Upway (or The Convict and Boy with the Violin)
8. Before Life and After

John PARRY (b.1930)
Six Songs (World Première recording)
9. Night
10. A Year to Remember
11. Red Sky
12. Dancing Lesson
13. Snow
14. Making Music

Ben PARRY (b.1965)
Season Songs (World Première recording)
15. Love and June
16. Summer Song
17. September
18. Autumn
19. November Dawn
20. Winter Madness
21. In April
22. Spring

Andrew LEACH (b.1954)
Four Songs (World Première recording)
23. January
24. The Hearth
25. The Cry
26. On the Farm

See also review by John Quinn