A couple of years ago, when reviewing the Naxos release
of a number of Jonathan Dove’s partsongs under the title The passing of the year
, I particularly commended his solo song My beloved is mine
. It's an example of something that might well find favour with folksong societies because of its simplicity and emotional impact. These song cycles give the listener another opportunity to engage with the composer’s writing for solo voice. All of them except Ariel
here receive their world première recordings. Although texts are not provided in the booklet, they are available on the Naxos website. In fact the words are almost invariably clear in the excellent diction of the singers and the carefully judged piano accompaniments.
The disc begins with the cycle Out of winter
to words by the famous tenor Sir Robert Tear (1939-2011); I was aware of his volumes of entertaining autobiography, but must admit that I was ignorant of his parallel career as a published poet. The first performance was given by Tear as soloist, and Nicky Spence here sounds very like his distinguished predecessor in both tone and style although more youthful. The cycle was written as a response to Britten’s Hardy settings in Winter words
. There are indeed some similarities in the manner of the composition, not least in the train journey depicted in the second (untitled) song, and the fourth which features the vicar from Hardy’s The choirmaster’s burial
in a poignant series of wry observations.
In his informative booklet notes, pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen describes the second song as “rather monotonous” but in fact there is plenty of variety of mood here and the final song makes for a barnstorming conclusion to the cycle.
The second cycle on this disc, Cut my shadow
to words by Federico Garcia Lorca in an English translation by Gwynne Edwards, makes quite a contrast to its predecessor with its sense of fevered tragedy. There are only three songs here, all of them with a piano accompaniment which even in the second song The guitar
builds up quite a dramatic momentum. This music is less accessible than in Out of winter
, but the emotional impact is unmistakable; the booklet notes correctly observe that “they are unique, in [Dove’s] catalogue of song cycles so far, for their unyielding tragedy.” Patricia Bardon encompasses the wide vocal range without any sense of strain, and her diction again is commendably clear.
which employs selected extracts from Shakespeare’s Tempest
— not merely the expected songs but also passages of dialogue — is written for unaccompanied soprano who provides her own wordless commentary on the text by various onomatopoeic devices. We are here in similar territory to My beloved is mine
, with long sustained lyrical lines contrasted with almost folk-like dance sections. The earlier recording by Patricia Green on the Blue Griffin GR279, released in 2013, comes coupled with a collection of songs for unaccompanied voice by various composers. This reading therefore has the advantage of being heard in the context of other cycles by Dove. On the alternative recording Green makes rather more of her imitations of the sea, but her voice is less full than Claire Booth here, and her diction is distinctly less clear with an unsteadiness on sustained notes which detracts from the overall result. The recording on this new Naxos release is also more closely observed, which works to the advantage of the music. It also unfortunately reveals a cough at track 14, 0.54 — apparently from a member of the audience, although there is otherwise no indication that this is a live recording.
The final cycle on this disc is the earliest, All you who sleep tonight
being a setting of thirteen short lyrics by Vikram Seth. Only two of these are more than a couple of minutes in duration. They were originally written for Nuala Willis as a cross that could be “sung somewhere between a night-club and the Wigmore Hall.” They seem to lie nearer the latter end of the spectrum, especially when given such a serious performance as here by Patricia Bardon, and they lack the easy accessibility that one finds in the later composed cycles. Nonetheless these songs do
remain immediately accessible, reflecting the moods of Seth’s poetry with a sure touch. Dove makes sure that we can hear the words, often reducing the piano accompaniment to a slow-moving series of chords as in Night watch
(track 24) in order to do so. At other times the piano reflects the more perturbed nature of the poetry, as at the opening of Voices
(track 25) with its insistent ostinato writing which then subsides into reflection. Bardon’s engagement with the text, and her diction, remain a constant source of enjoyment.
Apart from his excellent booklet notes, Andrew Matthews-Owen is a superlative pianist, and he is well treated by the resonant recording. Throughout these cycles one is grateful to encounter a composer whose writing for the voice, and his understanding of its technique, is so approachable. We must be grateful to Naxos for making these works available in such excellent performances.
Paul Corfield Godfrey