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Amy WOODFORDE-FINDEN (1860-1919)
Four Indian Love Lyrics (1902) [9:23]
A Lover in Damascus (1904) [15:14]
Six Songs from "On Jhelum River" (1906) [15:39]
A Dream of Egypt (1910) [13:26]
Stars of the Desert (1911) [12:21]
The Myrtles of Damascus (1918) [10:45]
Michael Halliwell (baritone), David Miller (piano)
rec. Recital Hall West, Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Australia, 2-5 December 2013 TOCCATA CLASSICS TOCC0236 [78:04]
Go into just about any bookshop that has a box of secondhand music and the likelihood is that amongst the Golden Hour Selections and the Associated Board Editions of Beethoven Sonatas and just behind the Rustle of Spring and next to In a Monastery Garden you will find Amy Woodforde-Finden's Four Indian Love Lyrics. Between its publication in 1902 and the outbreak of World War I it was a phenomenon. Michael Halliwell's excellent liner-note puts his finger on this perfectly - "the exotic Orient". Refined and sanitised for the delicate palate of the Edwardian Salon nearly all the songs here aspire to the frisson of danger and the deliciously seductive unknown that the dark continents promised.
Halliwell sings thirty such songs here but it is one alone - No.3 of the Four Indian Love Lyrics that captured the imagination like no other. Properly called Kashmiri Song it is better known by its first line; "Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar". I suspect even Woodforde-Finden's most ardent supporters might baulk at thirty similar songs at a single hearing. Despite the skill and enthusiasm of the performers here attention does start to wander after the fifth or sixth similar song. The curiosity and interest lies in the fact that these miniature song-cycles sit on the cusp between the Art song-cycles and the individual salon ballads that would sell in their millions for domestic consumption. A salon cycle was and remains relatively rare but as the six such cycles presented here show Woodforde-Finden was in her element. In the liner Halliwell makes a strong case for the simmering eroticism of the texts implying trans-racial as well as trans-gender relationships. What was literary dynamite in 1903 reads as pretty tame stuff a century and more later; full texts of all the songs in English only are provided. Sadly, that is the response to the music too. Woodforde-Finden writes solidly and effectively. Both piano and vocal parts are written with a keen awareness of the technical limitations of the intended performers/audience. Harmonies are conservative, melodies mainly written in step - or small jump - progressions and the poetic imagery is distinctly dated.
As with so much Art of the Edwardian age - certainties were swept away by the disruptive chaos of the World War - indeed there is something rather poignant about hearing the fifteen year span of composition presented on this disc from 1903 to 1918. By 1918 Woodforde-Finden's husband had been dead for two years and this cycle - The Myrtles of Damascus - was her last. It does seem that she was trying to give her work an extra emotional gravitas with the piano having more of the musical argument and interest than previously. Curiously the first song starts with a phrase lifted straight from Tosca but Halliwell quotes her obituary in The Times from 14 March 1919: "... the composer of one type of song and nothing else." That might read like a harsh judgement but having heard this disc it is hard not to agree. Even within the genre of salon ballads her work is outshone by the sheer melodic memorable qualities of Eric Coates or Ivor Novello. At the same time, Albert Ketèlbey could be relied on for a more picturesque line in pseudo-orientalism. There are highlights - Kashmiri Song is an understandable hit - and the final song in the cycle A Lover in Damascus - 'Allah be with Us' builds up a head of hymn-like steam that is rather enjoyable.
With the exception of the Four Indian Love Lyrics all the cycles are receiving either their first recordings or first modern recordings. As mentioned, I admire the enthusiasm of baritone Michael Halliwell for this project and he is excellently supported by pianist David Miller who finds exactly the right balance between romantic sentiment and ensuring the music keeps moving rather than wallowing in another moment of dewy-eyed reflection. Unfortunately I do not find Halliwell's voice to my taste. The basic sound in the middle and lower register is appealing but the higher tessitura finds him strained and uncomfortable - to my ear often not quite reaching the pitch. In the same range some notes and phrases smear together in a not very elegant way. The recording is good - unfussy but detailed and accurate and as usual from Toccata the presentation is interesting and informative. A strong argument is made for the underlying sexual tensions represented in the texts - and in part evoked by the music. As such this makes the disc of archival and socio-historical interest. Ultimately, success will depend on the quality of the music and performances and the relevance it has for a modern audience which I fear will be limited.