There has already been one CD devoted to the songs of Sir Hubert Parry. That’s a Hyperion disc, recorded as long ago as 1997 by Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson (CDA67044). Happily, there’s not too much duplication between the 27 songs recorded here and the 30 that were set down by Stephen Varcoe. Eleven songs appear on both albums and five that are common to both collections are here sung by a female voice which affords additional contrast between the two albums. The fact that fifteen years separate these two recordings speaks to the neglect into which Parry’s songs have fallen.
The content of this recital is taken from the twelve volumes of Parry’s ‘English Lyrics’, which comprise a total of 74 songs. Parry set a wide variety of poets and the present programme includes settings of Keats, Sir Walter Scott, Shakespeare and Shelley. There are also several by more minor poets, including three - Mary Coleridge, Langdon Evelyn Mitchell and Julian Sturgis - whose texts figured heavily in Parry’s later settings. In his very useful notes Philip Lancaster draws attention to a 1923 article in The Times which suggested that Parry turned to this trio of poets because ‘they sometimes gave him what greater poets did not, the chance of saying something with his music which he had very much in heart, the chance of being entirely himself.’ If that’s so then perhaps we should add to the list of texts that gave him that opportunity one more song, What Part of Dread Eternity, the words of which are attributed to Parry himself.
That particular song strikes me as a rather earnest affair despite William Dazeley’s involving singing. By contrast, however, the very next item on the programme, Julia, is delicate and good humoured. The opening song, too, evidences delicacy; Good-night is charming and well-crafted. One of Parry’s best-known songs is the delightful My Heart is like a Singing Bird. This is well done by Ailish Tynan though I wonder if a slightly lighter voice than hers might have suited the music better.
Miss Tynan also gets to sing Bright Star, an expansive Keats setting. I admire the tonal lustre she brings to this impressive song though here her words are not ideally clear. She brings committed advocacy to There, another good song and she sings Willow, Willow, Willow very well; this is an affecting setting. She brings the programme to a touching conclusion with A Welsh Lullaby.
Susan Bickley is in fine voice and with her warm tone and expressive singing she makes a very good case for Sleep. To her falls the song which Philip Lancaster says is regarded as arguably Parry’s finest song, From a City Window. It’s a fine piece in which I was especially impressed by the way in which Parry suggests the restlessness of city life - even in those days - in the piano part. Susan Bickley sings the song very well. She’s also very convincing in Nightfall in Winter. Here Parry’s music suggests a still, cold night most effectively. She gives one of the best performances of the programme in singing the expansive Lay a Garland on my Hearse. The way in which Parry moves from the minor to the major as the singer delivers the very last word is imaginative.
It was sensible, I think, to have a variety of voices to sing these songs. William Dazeley is the male voice on show and he makes a strong contribution. Philip Lancaster suggests that in To Lucasta on Going to the Wars Parry’s music is ‘too delicately suave and measured’ for the sentiments of the text. I know what he means but Dazeley’s forthright delivery helps to redress the balance somewhat. He is also allotted Looking Backward, one of several that Parry’s distinguished biographer, Jeremy Dibble, has identified as possibly autobiographical. The words and music certainly convey impassioned regret for past losses and Dazeley’s strong performance is appropriate. He also gives us Parry’s setting of the famous Shakespearian text, O Mistress mine. It’s a nice setting; perhaps it’s not as memorable as some I’ve hear by other composers - or perhaps I know those settings better.
Are there any great English songs here? Much though I admire Parry, I don’t think there are. However, there are quite a few very good ones and the entire collection is well worth hearing. It would be nice to think that a few of Parry’s songs might find their way into recital programmes on a more regular basis.
The performances are excellent. All three singers do very well by Parry; did they have to learn most of the songs specially, I wonder? As ever, Iain Burnside is an immaculate and excellent accompanist. The recordings were made in the Music Room at Parry’s old family home, Highnam Court, which lies just a few miles from where I live. As this gracious house, of which there’s a fine photograph in the booklet, is in private hands I’ve never been inside but it sounds as if the room was an ideal location and Delphian’s recording is very pleasing.
Who knows when there’ll be another album of Parry’s songs so we should thank Delphian for their enterprise in issuing this collection. Admirers of Parry will need no urging to add this disc to their collection but others who are interested in English song should investigate it too; I fancy they may be pleasantly surprised.
To Lucasta on Going to the Wars*** [1:45]
Where shall the Lover Rest* [4:48]
What Part of Dread Eternity*** [4:16]
From a City Window ** [2:45]
My Heart is like a Singing Bird* [2:10]
Looking Backward*** [3:17]
Proud Maisie** [1:58]
The Faithful Lover*** [3:18]
Bright Star* [3:51]
Crabbed Age and Youth* [2:24]
Nightfall in Winter** [4:14]
O Never Say that I was False of Heart*** [2:41]
Dirge in Woods** [2:32]
A Girl to her Glass* [1:57]
There * [3:01]
O Mistress mine*** [1:31]
Willow, Willow, Willow* [2:20]
And Yet I Love Her till I Die*** [2:51]
Lay a Garland on my Hearse** [2:22]
Armida’s Garden** [2:18]
If Thou would’st Ease thine Heart*** [3:19]
A Welsh Lullaby* [3:11]
*Ailish Tynan (soprano); **Susan Bickley (mezzo); ***William Dazeley (baritone)