This Other Eden: A Landscape of English Poetry and Song
Kitty Whately (mezzo)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
Navarra Quartet (Magnus Johnston (violin I), Marije Ploemacher (violin II), Simone van der Giessen (viola), Brian O'Kane (cello))
Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton (readers)
rec. 2014, Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex.
Full track-listing below CHAMPS HILL CHRCD094 [81.53]
The young English mezzo, Kitty Whately is becoming increasingly well-known, not least as a member of the BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists scheme for 2013-15. I saw her a couple of years ago as the Woodcutter’s Boy – and in other roles – in English National Opera’s production of Pilgrim’s Progress by Vaughan Williams (review). This is her debut recital disc and the programme has been put together with no little thought.
The assembled material is described as ‘a Landscape of English Poetry and Song’ though in fact one sequence of four items represents an excursion into Scotland. Also, though the majority of the composers and authors represented are British there’s a welcome contribution from Samuel Barber, albeit setting lines by an Englishman about an English place. I mention these things not in order to quibble but rather to illustrate that the net has been cast wide – and perceptively – in assembling the programme. Note also the inclusion of the word “poetry” in the description of the programme. Though Miss Whately has chosen to follow a career as a singer she comes from theatrical stock. Her parents, Kevin Whately and Madelaine Newton are well-known and successful actors, her father being particularly noted for his role as Sergeant Lewis, the long-suffering sidekick to John Thaw in the long-running TV series, Inspector Morse. Kitty Whately has had the happy idea of inviting her parents to join her on her debut album and of the 29 tracks on this CD eleven are poems read by either her mother or her father.
The poems are all read extremely well and perceptively. It might be argued that the choice of some poems – the opening Shakespeare extract or Edward Thomas’s Adlestrop for instance - is slightly predictable – the musical selections contain more surprises. That said, many of the spoken items complement the music nicely; it’s very appropriate to hear Gurney’s The Fields are Full straight after Adlestrop, for example. I must admit I can’t quite make my mind up about the inclusion of the poems. It’s a very nice idea for Kitty Whately to involve her parents in what is clearly a very personal project and the spoken word offers an extra dimension. On the other hand there are times when I felt that the poems impede the musical flow and whilst the juxtaposition of readings and music might work well in a live situation I’m not completely convinced that one wants to hear the recitations repeatedly on disc. Still, I suppose, you can always skip the spoken items albeit that’s at the expense of breaking up the design of the programme.
The quality of Miss Whately’s singing is very impressive. Her voice is very well and evenly produced and the sound that she makes is focussed, warm and falls pleasingly on the ear. Her interpretation of each song is clearly the result of a great deal of careful thought and it’s also obvious that she enjoys a fine rapport with Joseph Middleton. The selection of songs is discerning and includes a good number of choice pieces.
There’s a committed performance of Ireland’s Earth's Call while Warlock’s calmer song, My Own Country is another early sign of much promise in this programme, not least for the clarity of diction. To be frank, Quilter’s setting of I will go with my father a-ploughing isn’t a patch on Gurney’s exciting setting of the same text but it’s nice to hear Quilter’s less urgent take on the poem for a change. Here Quilter’s use of piano trio accompaniment is pleasing and I like the eagerness in Kitty Whately’s voice. As compensation for the “loss” of Gurney’s setting of that poem we get his wonderful, gently melancholic The Salley Gardens. Gurney reappears later in the programme in the shape of his The Fields are Full, which is attractively sung. Gurney’s friend and fellow-student, Herbert Howells is represented by his finest song, King David. The music offers a wonderful response to Walter de la Mare’s melancholy poem. Kitty Whately and Joseph Middleton give a highly concentrated, atmospheric account of this outstandingly beautiful song.
A E Housman is well represented. Two of his poems are read – three if you count the fragment that furnished John Ireland with the inspiration for his piano piece, Spring will not wait. There’s also an excerpt from Vaughan Williams’ fairly rarely heard Housman cycle Along the Field (1927) in which the voice is partnered by a solo violin in a way that put me in mind of the Ten Blake Songs (1957). We'll to the woods no more from that cycle is a haunting, atmospheric song and it’s very well done here. There’s more from VW in the shape of one of his best-known songs, Silent Noon. Here Kitty Whately shows an excellent sense of line and she doesn’t make the mistake of taking the song too slowly; instead the music flows invitingly.
In his very good notes Andrew Stewart likens Stanford’s La belle Dame sans Merci to Schubert’s Erlkönig. I agree; at least once the pace of Stanford’s song gets cracking. Miss Whately offers an involving narrative, helped by her excellent diction but never compromises her tonal quality in the interests of drama.
The adventurous selections include a song, The Children, by James MacMillan. That appears in the segment of the programme entitled ‘Wilds of Scotland’. It’s a haunting piece and one of Kitty Whately’s achievements here is to make us listen through the frequent moments of silence in the setting. It’s in this section too that we find a substantial piece by Joseph Horovitz in the shape of his Lady Macbeth: A Scena. This is a fine piece in which Horovitz presents a compelling portrait of Lady Macbeth by linking three of her key speeches in Shakespeare’s play. The words, and Horovitz’s setting of them, tellingly illustrate the anti-heroine’s descent into mental instability brought on by guilt and paranoia. Kitty Whately gives a strongly characterised, highly dramatic reading and the intensity of the performance is accentuated by Joseph Middleton’s quasi—orchestral playing of the piano part.
Enterprise is also shown in Miss Whately’s inclusion of Barber’s Dover Beach. To the best of my recollection I’ve never heard this sung by a female singer before. However, the poem is not gender-specific so there’s no particular reason why it should be the exclusive preserve of baritones. She does it very well indeed. Her singing per se is excellent and expressive while her care for the words – in every sense – is exemplary. The Navarra Quartet makes a fine contribution.
Throughout the programme, which contains several demanding piano parts, Joseph Middleton plays expertly and it’s good to find that he’s given his own moments in the spotlight. These take the form of two piano solos, Ireland’s Spring will not wait and Early Morning Bathe by Britten. Both of these miniatures were new to me. The Navarra Quartet make a fine contribution to Dover Beach and various members of the quartet are also involved – to excellent effect – in the accompaniment to three of the other songs.
The performances have been very well recorded and the excellent booklet enhances the release.
This is an excellent and very rewarding debut disc and I hope it won’t be long before Kitty Whately is back in the recording studio. On the evidence of this disc I’d greatly welcome the opportunity to hear her in more English song. However, it seems to me that she would be equally well suited to Schumann or Fauré. More, please.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) - This sceptred Isle (Richard II) John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Earth's Call [5.24] Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
My own country [2.27]
Walter de la Mare (1873-1956) - England Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
I will go with my father a-ploughing [2.21]
John Clare (1793-1864) - In Hilly-wood Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
The Salley Gardens [2.23] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
We'll to the woods no more [1.42]
Wendell Berry (born 1934) - The peace of wild things Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
King David [5.02]
Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) - The Darkling Thrush Charles Villiers STANFORD (1852-1924)
La belle Dame sans Merci [6.06] Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
Silent Noon [4.05]
Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) - The Lambs of Grasmere Michael HEAD (1900-1976)
A Green Cornfield [2.17] John IRELAND
Spring will not wait (piano solo) [3.58]
Edward Thomas (1878-1917) - Adlestrop Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
The Fields are Full [1.37] Joseph HOROVITZ (born 1926)
Lady Macbeth: A Scena [8.31] Roger QUILTER
I wish and I wish [2.14]
A.E. Housman - Into my heart an air that kills James MacMILLAN (born1959)
The Children [6.51]
A.E. Housman - O Stay at home my lad and plough [00.31] Folksong
Ma bonny lad [1.11]
Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977) - The Swimmers Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Early Morning Bathe (piano solo) [2.32] Michael HEAD
The Estuary [4.40]
John Masefield (1878-1967) - Sea Fever [1.07] Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
Dover Beach [7.52]