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No Exceptions, No Exemptions - Great War Songs
Robin Tritschler (tenor); Malcolm Martineau (piano)
rec. 20-22 February 2014, St. Michael’s Church, Summertown, Oxford. DDD
Original texts and English translations included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD401 [44:59 + 40:45]

This year that begins our centenary commemorations of the First World War has seen a few worthwhile musical contributions to that story, but this is probably the best that has come my way. The first great strength of No Exceptions, No Exemptions is its programming: it’s a very well chosen set of songs that comes from either composers or poets who were connected in some way with the war. Its strength and variety puts me in mind of Anna Prohaska’s excellent recital disc, also from this year, Behind the Lines (which I referenced when I heard her do the same programme at the 2014 Edinburgh International Festival).

The featured composers range from footnotes in the history of the war (such as Albéric Magnard, who died in 1914 while defending his property from Germans who were trying to seize it) through to those who were interned on German soil (Keel, Bainton and Dale who were interned at Ruhleben in Berlin) or, most poignantly, those who were killed in action. That last category includes famous names like Butterworth, but also those I had never come across, such as Ernest Farrar, William Denis Browne or, poignantly, the German composer Rudi Stephan who was shot by a Russian sniper in Galicia. Stephan's cycle, Ich will dir singe nein Hohelied, is beautiful, poignant, almost Mahlerian in quality. Its inclusion here fills the listener with regret, not only for his life, lost in 1915, but for the lives of so many other artists, killed in the war, who never got the chance to attain greatness. As with them, so with countless others. It's a fine tribute, and whoever assembled the programme — Tritschler himself, presumably, though the notes give no details — has done us all a service in doing so.

After the programming, though, the disc’s second great attribute is the performances, which are moving and poignant throughout. Tritschler is an extremely humane guide through this often tragic scene. While he carries the bluster of Le Rhin Allemand, it is the poignancy of the final verse that sticks with you the most. There is an appropriately ghostly quality to his voice at the opening of Prokofiev's Trust Me and the delicacy of his tenor fits the mood of Delius' To Daffodils very well. Equally, there is quiet nobility to his singing of Cecil Coles and disarming simplicity to Farrar's Brittany. The sequence from William Denis Browne is full of the freshness of discovery, and I loved Kelly's setting of Shall I Compare Thee, with its earnest longing and intense concentration, which Tritschler encompasses with appropriate ardour.

I also enjoyed the Ruhleben songs that open the second disc. It's remarkable how many moods they range across, from songs appropriate to their sombre place of origin through to a bizarrely perky setting of Shakespeare's O Mistress Mine. However, we are in much darker territory for Debussy's Noël, a setting of the composer’s own dark text about the dispossessed civilians of the war. This is, arguably, where both Tritschler and Martineau are at their most successful in bringing the text to life. Martineau's unnervingly agitated piano line is met by Tritshchler's haunted voice. Michael Head's two songs are very beautiful, both concealing dark suggestions behind a seemingly plain-speaking vocal line and beautiful melody. I found Vellones' Letter very moving, both in its music and the touching subject matter of its text, and Gurney's In Flanders resonates with the genuine feeling of loss and longing, as does Caplet's brief song expressing his longing for his village. The recital ends appropriately with Ives' great setting of MacCrae's In Flanders Field, which Tritschler approaches with great dignity and purpose leading to the entreaty of the final verse. This Martineau meets with suitable focus, hanging tellingly on the final dissonances which close the song, and the recital, on an unsettling question mark.

The booklet notes are useful and focused, and are written by Tritschler himself, another string to his bow. Irritating, though, is the booklet's printing of the translations below the original language, rather than in parallel. This is often a feature of Signum's vocal releases, and is surely avoidable, as parallel translations would take up little more space and would make following the recital a lot easier on the listener's eye. Don’t let that put you off exploring this important release, though. It is of interest far beyond the historical.

Simon Thompson

Previous review: John Quinn (Recording of the Month)

Full Track-listing

CD 1 [44:59]
Albéric MAGNARD (1865-1914) Le Rhin allemand, Op. 3, No. 3 (1898-1900) [4.16]
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916) On the idle hill of summer [3.02]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Trust me, Op. 23, No. 3 [2.22]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) To Daffodils [2.45]
Rudi STEPHAN (1887-1915) Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied; Kythere [1.37]; Pantherlied [1.01]; Abendfrieden [1.40]; In Nachbars Garten [2.33]; Glück zu Zweien [2.05]; Das Hohelied der Nacht [1.52]
Cecil COLES (1888-1918) Elegy [2.46]
Ernest FARRAR (1885-1918) Brittany, Op. 21, No. 1 [2.19]
Darius MILHAUD (1892-1974) L’abandon, Op. 20, No. 1 [4.19]
William Denis BROWNE (1888-1915) Epitaph on Salathiel Pavy [3.33]; To Gratiana Dancing and Singing [4.04]; Diaphenia [2.00]
Frederick KELLY (1881-1916) Shall I compare thee? Op. 1, No. 1 [2.39]

CD 2 [40:45]
Frederick KEEL (1871-1954) In Prison [2.30]
Edgar BAINTON (1880-1956) Angel spirits of sleep [2.10]; All night under the moon [2.09]
Benjamin DALE (1885-1943) O Mistress Mine [1.29]; Come Away, Death [4.45] (with Ruth Gibbons, viola)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison, L. 139 [2.34]
Michael HEAD (1900-1976) The ships of Arcady [3.36]; A blackbird singing [2.41]
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937) Light, Op. 19, No. 1 [3.14]
Pierre VELLONES (1889-1939) Lettre du Front [5.25]
Sir Arthur BLISS (1891-1975) A child’s prayer, F. 171 [1.48]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) In Flanders [3.03]
André CAPLET (1878-1925) Quand reverrai-je, hélas! [1.07]; En regardant ces belles fleurs [1.33]
Charles IVES (1874-1954) In Flanders Fields, S. 277 [2.39]