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Support us financially by purchasing this disc from
Nightingale - Folk Songs arranged by Mark Tanner
see end of review for track listing
Michael George (bass-baritone), Mark Tanner (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 26-27 February 2014
Sung texts with comments enclosed
PRIORY PRCD 1122 [66:12

Updating folk songs by supplying accompaniments is nothing new. We need only remember Benjamin Britten’s efforts – which have become classics. Here Mark Tanner has picked sixteen songs with roots in some cases as far back as the 13th century. On the other hand A Carol by Candlelight (tr. 10) was written – words and music – by Mr Tanner himself as recently as 2009. Of the remaining songs the melody for The Last Rose of Summer was composed in 1813 by Sir John Stevenson. We know that there is a human mind behind all the melodies although their having been passed on through oral tradition they have probably undergone changes on the way – until they were first written down - and probably after that as well. I sometimes wonder whether the originator, if he could be transported with the help of a time-machine to our time, would recognise his tune and whether he would approve of Mark Tanner’s accompaniments. To put it bluntly: he would probably not approve of Britten’s accompaniments either – for obvious reasons since he would be totally unfamiliar with the harmonies, however mild, with which Britten adorned the songs. Concerning Mark Tanner’s work the reaction would probably be: strange harmonies and what a lot of notes.

This latter remark is my main hang-up: the accompaniments are quite elaborate – technically they are surmountable to allow these arrangements to be performed – but they tend to rob the songs of their ‘folksy’ simplicity and draw attention to themselves. Surely the object was to ‘save’ the songs for posterity. They are inventive and clever, no doubt about that, but they tend to be obtrusive. Listen to Greensleeves for instance, to see what I mean. These songs can stand any treatment and still survive, and many of them have been victims of quite horrible choral settings, arranged for dance band and God knows what …

Still I was, after hearing some of these songs, fascinated to hear what ideas Tanner had about the next song and I have to admit that, after all, the pleasure I derived from the disc was to be found in the arrangements – and the melodies, several of which were unfamiliar. It was unavoidable to pick mainly slow songs, since most tend to be slow, but this also implies that there is a certain monotony in a programme of this kind. Thus it was a relief when I reached track 12, three-quarters through the recital, to find The Mermaid which is a happy, even jolly cabaret-like song.

I am afraid that, what rules this disc out for me is the singing of Michael George. I have admired him for many years, on record and in the flesh. I particularly remember a performance in London of Handel’s Messiah, where he was the bass soloist and I afterwards bought his recording on Hyperion. A steady, flexible bass-baritone, excellent enunciation — which he has retained to this very day — and tonal beauty were his hallmarks then. Alas, much of the steadiness is gone and the singing is markedly effortful. The tone is worn and rather uneven. He has good intentions and obviously loves these songs but the voice doesn’t always obey his intentions. Not everything goes wrong. The Oak and the Ash (tr. 3) receives a straightforward and full-throated reading, and O Waly Waly (tr. 8) is very sensitively sung, but all too often I can almost visualise how he has to struggle with every phrase. The recording is also a problem. The piano is very brilliantly recorded – and rather close – while Michael George seems to be in an altogether different acoustic with something like a halo around him. At least this was what I experienced when listening through headphones.

To end on a happy note: the booklet has extensive notes on the origin of each of these sixteen songs – a fascinating read. I only wish that the recording could have been made some years earlier.

Göran Forsling

Track listing
1. Down by the Salley Gardens [3:42]
2. Sweet Nightingale [4:07]
3. The Oak and the Ash [2:48]
4. Greensleeves [6:16]
5. The Pool of Pilate [1:45]
6. I Love my Love [3:56]
7. Cold Blows the Wind Today Sweetheart [4:39]
8. O Waly Waly [3:24]
9. Carrickfergus [7:32]
10. A Carol by Candlelight [2:39]
11. Lovely Nancy [4:13]
12. The Mermaid [3:24]
13. Loch Lomond [5:08]
14. Shenandoah [3:26]
15. Londonderry Air [3:39]
16. The Last Rose of Summer [4:15]