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Season Songs
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Winter Words, Op. 52 (1953) [21:08]
John PARRY (b. 1930)
Six Songs (1992) [14:00]
Ben PARRY (b. 1965)
Season Songs (2008) [13:48]
Andrew LEACH (b. 1954)
Four Songs (1976) [10:01]
Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor)
Eugene Asti (piano: Britten & Parry); Sam Wilson (marimba: B Parry) Andrew Leach (piano: Leach)
rec. 8-9 December 2010, Potton Hall, Suffolk; 12-13 December, 2011 Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk (Winter Words)
EM RECORDS EMR CD014 [58:58]

This disc of English songs, which takes the seasons as its theme, is one in which connections abound. We have two father-and-son pairings for not only is Ben Parry the son of John Parry but also in Ben Parry’s set of songs Richard Edgar-Wilson is accompanied by his percussionist son, Sam Wilson. The other connection is Suffolk. Britten is inextricably linked with the county, for one thing. In addition, John Parry spent many years working as a teacher and church organist in Ipswich. His son, Ben attended Ipswich School and so too did Richard Edgar-Wilson and, later, his son, Sam. Andrew Leach is the Director of Music at the same school though whether he taught any of the aforementioned alumni of the school I don’t know. To complete the Suffolk theme all the recordings were made at two venues in the county and Ben Parry’s Season Songs are settings of Cecil Lay (1885-1956), who lived in Suffolk all his life and between 1898 and 1904 he studied at - yes, you’re right - Ipswich School.

Right, so now we know we’re discussing a ‘Suffolk Project’. What of the music and the performances? Easily the best-known work here is Britten’s set of songs to words by Thomas Hardy; indeed, all the other music on this disc is being recorded for the first time. I’m sure I must have heard Richard Edgar-Wilson sing previously but I can’t readily remember the occasion. However, he makes an excellent impression here. Throughout the recital his tone is well produced and even, there’s excellent dynamic control, his voice is clear and ringing and his diction is immaculate. His partner in the Britten and John Parry songs is the American, Eugene Asti, who I know I’ve heard several times before, including in recitals with Sarah Connolly (review) and James Rutherford (review). Throughout both the cycles on this disc in which he features Asti’s accompaniments are exemplary.
The Britten is very well done. The only reservation I have comes towards the end of the first song, ‘At Day-close in November’ where Edgar-Wilson sings very quietly. The problem is that, to my ears, he sings too softly and it’s not always easy to hear the vocal line - and I don’t believe Asti is playing too loudly. Otherwise, all is well. I like the delicacy that both artists bring to both ‘Wagtail and Baby’ and to ‘The Little Old Table’; both these songs are well-pointed. Much of ‘The Choirmaster’s Burial’ is almost like a sparingly accompanied recitativo and I like the way Richard Edgar-Wilson tells the story. I also admire his admirably light tone, especially at the start and close of the song. ‘Before Life and After’, the concluding song, features some lovely quiet singing early on - the singer becomes more impassioned later. In the very first phrase of this song one can so easily hear in ones mind echoes of Peter Pears, for whom it was written, but this is very much Edgar-Wilson’s performance and a fine one it is.
John Parry’s Six Songs set poems by Catherina Marriott from a collection entitled Impressions(1991). Apparently, the poems made an immediate impression on Parry, who determined that several were ripe for a musical setting; and I’m not surprised. As a point of reference only I would say that anyone who responds to the music of Britten will respond to John Parry’s songs also though, as I say, that’s a comparison for reference only; Parry’s songs have their own voice. I liked ‘A Year to Remember’, which is a slightly nostalgic poem of the seasons. In ‘Dancing Lesson’ memories of a child’s dancing lesson are entertainingly conveyed by both poet and composer while the final song, ‘Making Music’ has witty words set to witty music. These are enjoyable songs and so far as I can tell on first acquaintance, they’re done extremely well by Edgar-Wilson and Asti.
If John Parry’s name was new to me the same is not true of his son. I’ve come across Ben Parry as a conductor with the Rodolfus Choir (review) and I believe he was also the co-founder of the Dunedin Consort (review). I’ve also encountered him as an arranger of Christmas music (review) but Season Songs is much more substantial fare. He sets eight poems by the Suffolk poet, Cecil Lay. The settings are marked out not least by the unusual combination of solo voice and marimba, unprecedented in my experience. The songs are dedicated to Richard Edgar-Wilson and his son. I guess that the very fact that a marimba is required for the accompaniment may inhibit frequent performances but the songs are attractive and the accompaniment is not only novel but intriguing. The subtle sounds of the marimba create their own fascination and the accompaniment provides an interesting underpinning for the vocal line in the second song, ‘Summer Song’. The marimba’s timbres work particularly well in songs 4 - 6, which illustrate Autumn or Winter and I love the dancing rhythms - which extend to the vocal part also - in the concluding ‘Spring’. Here the music conveys Spring joy and the rising of the sap most delightfully.
I wish I could be so enthusiastic about Andrew Leach’s songs but I found they had an almost unrelieved gloominess to them. Part of the trouble is his choice of texts: four poems by the Welsh poet, R.S. Thomas (1913-2000). I’m sure these poems display great literary accomplishment - not long before his death Thomas was nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature - but I’m afraid the dark imagery in these poems does little for me. Unsurprisingly, Leach’s music is consistently serious in tone; had he selected even just one cheerful text and set it accordingly I could probably have lived with the rest. Others may respond more positively.
Despite my reservations about the final set of songs there’s much to enjoy here and it’s good that these unfamiliar songs have been given a recording alongside the Britten. Collectors of English song can investigate this disc confident that the standard of performance is consistently high, as is the standard of the recorded sound and the documentation.
John Quinn

Britten discography & review index: Winter Words