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No Exceptions. No Exemptions - The Great War in Song
Full track-listing at the end of this review
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]

In the course of 2014 I’ve attended two recitals that were outstanding in their planning and their execution, both of which commemorated the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. Both were given by baritones: Christopher Maltman (review) and Roderick Williams (review). I do hope that one – or, preferably, both – of these fine singers might be invited to take their respective programmes into the recording studio. Happily, we have here one such programme, devised and sung by the young Irish tenor, Robin Tritschler.
 
I don’t know if Tritschler designed his programme, as Christopher Maltman did, to include music by composers from all the main combatant nations but that’s what has happened: he offers songs by English, French and German composers as well as one item each from Russia and the USA. Several of the composers who are represented here lost their lives during the conflict – of those whose date of death falls between 1914 and 1918 only Debussy was not a war casualty. Tritschler says in the booklet that the programme “draws its inspiration from those lives upturned by the Great War … Some survived the conflict to produce great catalogues of works. Others never made it home, penning their final songs in the mud of the trenches.” He adds that he restricted his selection of songs to those composed either during the war itself or in the years immediately preceding the conflict. Some of the poets whose words we hear set to music in these songs were also involved in the war. Tritschler provides brief notes on all the composers and poets. These are useful though it’s a pity that the composition dates of only a few of the songs are given: in a collection such as this that information would be invaluable.

Since so many of the songs may be unfamiliar it’s hard to know where to start. I think the best thing is to comment on the songs in the order in which they occur in the programme but I hope I’ll be forgiven if I leave out some of the better-known songs, such as the ones by Butterworth and Delius.
 
The song by Magnard was new to me. Though not a combatant he died in the first month of the conflict, defending his house against German soldiers. Le Rhin allemand is one of his Six poèmes, Op 3, which were composed, I believe, between 1898 and 1890. It’s perhaps an indication of Magnard’s patriotism that the text for this particular song is a poem prompted by the Rhine crisis of 1840. Also new to me was the Prokofiev song, written to a text by a poet friend. It’s quite a strange piece: the tempo is slow and the vocal line is almost entirely plangent and high-lying. The amount of dissonance in the piano part, though quietly stated, indicates that this is a relatively early composition.
 
The German composer, Rudi Stephan was killed in action in 1915. His music is becoming better known these days – there was a welcome and good performance of his 1912 Music for Orchestra at the 2014 Proms (review). There are or have been orchestral collections on Chandos and Schwann. I’d not previously heard any of his songs but I was impressed by Ich will dir singen ein Hohelied. This is a set of six songs to poems by Gerda von Robertus (1872-1939), composed, I understand in 1913-14. The title translates roughly as ‘I want to sing you a song’. The songs, which are mainly slow in tempo, are rewarding and very interesting with expressive vocal lines and intriguing harmonies in the piano part. They deserve to be better known, especially the last two; this recording should help their cause.

The British composer, Cecil Coles, was an almost exact contemporary of Stephan. Like many composers cut down in the war – George Butterworth being the prime British example – he left tantalisingly few compositions. His orchestral music was well served some years ago by Martyn Brabbins and Hyperion (review). He thoroughly deserves his place in this collection, though coming straight after the Stephan songs Elegy appears much less searching though the music hints that there would have been more and better to come had he been spared. I don’t think much of the poem that Ernest Farrar chose to set in Brittany but the music itself is gently touching.
 
It’s valuable to have a song by Darius Milhaud – a novelty, as far as I’m concerned. His slow, searching L’abandon is intriguing and also full of feeling. Several of the handful of songs composed by Denis Browne have become quite well known in recent years. It’s good to encounter no fewer than three of them here, though I wish his fine The Isle of Lost Dreams (1909?) had been included. To Gratiana Dancing and Singing (1913) is arguably his finest song and Tritschler sings it very well. The other two songs on his programme date from the previous year.
 
The second disc opens with an interesting sub-group of five songs written by British composers while they were in the internment camp that the Germans set up at Ruhleben to house allied non-combatants who were stranded in Germany at the start of the war. Frederick Keel is best known for his song, Trade Winds (1919). In Prison (1915) isn’t as memorable a song. The two Edgar Bainton songs are more interesting, especially Angel spirits of sleep. Benjamin Dale is represented by two Shakespeare settings. I was particularly taken with the lovely Come Away, Death which includes a husky viola obbligato.
 
We hear Debussy’s very last song, which dates from 1918; it gets a passionate performance here. Both of the Michael Head settings are fine examples of his craft. Tritschler is very effective in both and I particularly appreciated the way he floats the poetic line of The ships of Arcady. Roussel’s Light was previously unknown to me but I liked it and I admired the expertly controlled performance. At least I’ve heard music by Roussel before, if not this particular piece; however, not just the music but also the name of Pierre Vellones was completely new to me. I learned from the notes that he was a friend of many musicians, including Ravel and Roussel but that his father persuaded him to pursue a career in medicine rather than in music. Lettre du Front dates from 1916 and it’s an eloquent song which is sung with fine feeling by Tritschler.
 
The two songs by André Caplet are fairly rare, I think, but I’ve encountered them before. They’re included on an excellent and thoughtful disc of Great War songs recorded by the late Philip Langridge with David Owen-Norris under the title Priez pour paix (Prelude CDPR 2550). Tritschler is a persuasive advocate for them. He finishes, perhaps provocatively, with In Flanders Fields by Charles Ives. It seems to me that Ives’s deliberately vulgar and sardonic style sits rather oddly with John McRae’s poignant words but that’s a purely personal view which probably isn’t universally shared.
 
Robin Tritschler has put together an uncommonly thoughtful and enterprising programme. But he’s done more than that because he’s also executed the programme extremely well. I enjoyed his singing very much and I particularly admired the consistent clarity of both his tone and diction. At every turn he’s partnered expertly and perceptively by Malcolm Martineau. This is an admirable and stimulating musical commemoration of the Great War, valuable not least for the way it shines light on some lesser-known composers and songs. I’ve found listening to it a fascinating and rewarding experience.
 
John Quinn

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]