FORGOTTEN ARTISTS - An occasional series by Christopher Howell 13. ASTRA DESMOND (1893-1973)
When writing the previous article in this series, on Harold Craxton, I was thrilled to discover that Astra Desmond, the mezzo-soprano with whom Craxton set down some Grieg and Purcell in the 1940s, “had one of those voices that, when unleashed in all its glory, can knock you for six. Not just with the volume, but for the emotional charge it contains.” Reason enough to see what else I could find. And about time, I daresay, to include a singer in this series.
It turned out that
CHARM had quite a lot of material for download. Together with the original singers’ recording of Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music”, conducted by Sir Henry Wood, which has been reissued many times, this accounts for most of Desmond’s not very numerous recordings. Did I have a lovely time being “knocked for six” by it all? Well, yes and no. There’s certainly plenty of fine singing on these discs, so let’s proceed in order.
Not a lot emerges beyond the bare facts related by Wikipedia. Gwendolyn Mary Thompson, as she was really called, was born in Torquay, Devon, UK, on 10 April 1893. She studied singing in London with Blanche Marchesi and followed this with a period in Berlin, where Coenraad V. Bos, a celebrated accompanist who can be heard on disc with Elena Gerhardt and others, was among her teachers.
The programme for the Promenade Concert of 16 August 1939, at which Desmond sang, tells us she made her debut at the Steinway Hall (now Wigmore Hall), with such success that she was invited to sing at a Royal Albert Hall ballad concert a few days later. It does not give the dates. From other sources, I understand this was in 1915. It also tells us that she broadcast for the first time in 1924, that she was a friend of Elgar’s and sang “every one of his contralto parts” under his baton, and that she spent two-and-a-half years studying Norwegian in preparation for a Grieg recital.
Glimpses of her Angel in “Gerontius” can be obtained from a partially preserved 1935 performance under Sargent – see comment by John Quinn.
Desmond mainly concentrated on recital and oratorio repertoire, but she did sing with the Carl Rosa Company – the “Musical Times” of 1 December 1916 described her as a “new singer of great promise” – as well as at Sadler's Wells and Covent Garden. Her roles included Carmen, Dalilah, Ortrud and Fricka. In 1922 she created the title role of Rutland Boughton’s “Alkestis” at Glastonbury. Her preference for recital work was therefore not the result of a voice that was too small for opera.
As well as Grieg, Desmond sang much Sibelius. There is some debate over whether she or Gerhard Hüsch was the first to sing Kilpinen in England – it seems they both did so in 1933. On 31 May 1934, Desmond sang 13 Kilpinen songs at the Wigmore Hall. At a “Scandinavian Evening” at the Proms on 13 August 1940, she contributed items by Kilpinen, Sjögren and Stenhammar.
Desmond was active, too, as a writer and as a translator. Her essays on the songs of Sibelius and Grieg were reprinted by Gerald Abraham in, respectively, “Sibelius: A Symposium” (1947) and “Grieg: A symposium” (1948). She contributed a study of Schumann’s songs to the series of BBC Guides. This was published in 1972 and a later reprint is still available. She evidently had a knowledge of Czech, for in 1949 she published an edition of Dvořák’s “Biblical Songs” with newly translated English texts. She stated in the preface that “This edition of the Biblical Songs has been prepared directly from the original Czech. A glance at the German-English-Czech edition of Volume I will suffice to show how far the existing English edition, based on the German one, deviates from what Dvořák actually wrote”. A volume of Grieg songs, with English translations by Desmond, was issued by Augener in 1961. The Norwegian Government conferred the Order of St. Olav upon her for her work on Grieg.
Other notable events were the first broadcast performance of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” in 1928 and a performance of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” under Boult in 1942, with Peter Pears as the tenor soloist. A section from this latter work, where Desmond sings in a 1936 BBC performance under Oscar Fried, has been preserved and issued by Arbiter (CO80).
It is not clear when Desmond definitively retired from public singing. Her last appearance at a Promenade Concert was in 1948. She sang in a further performance of Vaughan Williams’s “Serenade to Music”, conducted by the composer, in 1951. This has been issued by Albion (ALBCD009). The CBE she received in 1949 must nevertheless have seemed a tribute to a distinguished career nearing its close. A new career beckoned, moreover, since she taught singing at the Royal Academy of Music from 1947 to 1963. She was also President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians (1949-1950) and of the Society of Women Musicians (1951-1955).
Little emerges of Desmond’s personal life. In 1920 she married Sir Thomas Neame. They had three children. The eldest, Basil Desmond Neame (1921-2010), had a significant career as a fruit grower in Kent. Desmond died on 6 August 1973.
As a singing teacher in one of London’s leading musical institutions for 16 years, Desmond must surely have been responsible for training many of the singers active in the UK from the 1950s through to at least the 1990s. It is rather surprising, therefore, to find that she is not named in the curriculum of any leading singer of that period, including those who studied at the RAM during the period in which Desmond was there. One wonders if she was not actually a particularly inspiring teacher. However, there must be plenty of people around who could answer that question. Anyone who studied with Desmond during her last five years at the RAM would only be in their mid-seventies now. If any such person is reading this, could they write in with memories of their lessons Astra Desmond?
THE ASTRA DESMOND RAMBLING ROSE
Presumably not so many people grow “Astra Desmond” rambling roses in their gardens as eat Peach Melbas. Nonetheless, to judge from the number of Google hits, this is another case of a classical singer’s name being preserved far beyond the category of people who would ever listen to their singing. This variety of rose was first identified by Desmond’s husband at their home in Faversham, Kent, and named after his wife. According to the “Plantify” site, the “Rosa 'Astra Desmond' is a vigorous rambling rose, with abundant small white, double-petalled flowers. An ideal rose for growing over a pergola, Rosa 'Astra Desmond' is tolerant of semi-shade, and poor quality soils. A vigorous variety that will happily grow through a tree, or trained up a north facing wall.”
ASTRA DESMOND AND THE PROMS Thanks to the BBC Proms database, we can study in full one area of Desmond’s work. She was listed for 31 Proms appearances from 1920 through to 1948 although, as noted below, two of these had to be cancelled because of wartime conditions. Although this does not give a complete picture of her repertoire, it is nevertheless an impressive testimony to her range and to her constant presence on the British musical scene over some thirty years. I list only the items she actually sang in each concert, though the sheer incongruity of some of the earlier programmes makes fascinating reading. It may be noticed that it was customary, back then, to intersperse orchestral concerts with songs accompanied on the piano, a practice finally abandoned only after the death of Sir Henry Wood
(click on image for full-size).
1) Monday 23 August 1920, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Wagner: Das Rheingold: Weiche, Wotan! Weiche!
Henry Wood, conductor, New Queen's Hall Orchestra White, Maud Valérie: 3 Little songs
Frederick Kiddle, piano 2) Saturday 9 September 1922, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Meyerbeer: Le prophète: Recitative & aria 'O prêtres de Baal...O toi qui m'abandonnes'
Henry Wood, conductor, New Queen's Hall Orchestra Riego, Teresa: Sink, red sun
William W. Thompson, organ, Frederick Kiddle, piano 3) Tuesday 10 October 1922, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Gluck: Iphigénie en Aulide (arr. Francis Sanders and Henry Wood): Recitative & aria 'Allez! il faut sauver...Armez-vous d'un noble courage'
Henry Wood, conductor, New Queen's Hall Orchestra Davies, Henry Walford: 6 Songs, Op 18: No. 1 Hame
Frederick Kiddle, piano 4) Friday 17 August 1923, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Mozart: La clemenza di Tito, K 621: Recitative & aria 'Ecco il punto...Non più di fiori'
Henry Wood, conductor, New Queen's Hall Orchestra, Mendelssohn P Draper, basset horn Davies, Henry Walford Davies: 6 Songs, Op 18: No. 1 Hame
Frederick Kiddle, piano 5) Saturday 8 September 1923, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Meyerbeer: Le prophète: Recitative & aria 'O prêtres de Baal ... O toi qui m'abandonnes'
Henry Wood, conductor, New Queen's Hall Orchestra Peel, Graham: The country lover No. 4 The early morning Peel, Graham: Gipsies
Frederick Kiddle, piano 6) Monday 8 October 1923, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Wagner: Parsifal: Dich nannt'ich ... Ich sah das Kind
Henry Wood, conductor, New Queen's Hall Orchestra Cundell, Edric: Summer days and nights (Proms premiere)
Frederick Kiddle, piano
7) Wednesday 29 August 1928, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Brahms: 6 Songs op 3: No. 1 Liebestreu Brahms: 15 Romanzen op 33: No. 14 Wie froh und frisch
Berkeley Mason, piano MacCunn, Hamish: Lie there, my lute
Berkeley Mason, piano Quilter: 6 Songs op 18: No. 4 Spring is at the Door (Proms premiere)
Berkeley Mason, piano Scott, Cyril: In the silver moonbeams (Proms premiere)
Berkeley Mason, piano 8) Wednesday 3 October 1928, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232 (arr. Henry Wood): Agnus Dei
Henry Wood, conductor, Henry Wood Symphony Orchestra Kennedy-Fraser, Marjorie: Songs of the Hebrides: Kishmul's galley, Sea Feast, Deirdre’s Farewell to Albion
Berkeley Mason, piano 9) Wednesday 11 September 1929, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232 (arr. Henry Wood): Agnus Dei
Henry Wood, conductor, Henry Wood Symphony Orchestra Handel: Admeto, re di Tessaglia, HWV 22 (arr. Henry Wood) Aria 'Cangiò d'aspetto'
Henry Wood, conductor, Henry Wood Symphony Orchestra 10) Thursday 28 August 1930, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Bantock: Sappho No. 1b Hymn to Aphrodite
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra Kennedy-Fraser, Marjorie: Songs of the Hebrides: A Hebridean sea-reiver's song, Sea tangle
Berkeley Mason, piano 11) Monday 7 September 1931, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Wagner: Wesendonck-Lieder
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra Mahler: Rückert-Lieder: Liebst du um Schönheit (Proms premiere) Mahler: Des Knaben Wunderhorn: Wer hat dies Liedlein erdacht?
Berkeley Mason, piano
12) Wednesday 30 August 1933, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Bach: St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (arr. Henry Wood): Aria 'Erbarm’ es Gott!'
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Charles Woodhouse, violin
13) Wednesday 12 September 1934, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Brahms: Rhapsodie, Op 53
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, BBC Singers
14) Tuesday 25 August 1936, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Berlioz: Les nuits d'été, Op 7: No. 2 Le spèctre de la rose, No. 4 Absence
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra 15) Wednesday 11 August 1937, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall J. S. Bach: St Matthew Passion, BWV 244 (arr. Henry Wood): Aria 'Erbarm’ es Gott!'
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Paul Beard, violin 16) Saturday 20 August 1938, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Gluck: Iphigénie en Aulide (arr. Francis Sanders and Henry Wood): Recitative & aria 'Allez! il faut sauver...Armez-vous d'un noble courage' Act 1
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra Lambert, Constant: The Rio Grande
Constant Lambert, conductor, BBC Singers, Angus Morrison, piano, BBC Symphony Orchestra 17) Wednesday 16 August 1939, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Bach: Cantata No. 81, 'Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?', BWV 81 (arr. Henry Wood): Aria 'Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?'
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra
18) Thursday 31 August 1939, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Hadley: Mariana (Proms premiere)
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra Fauré: 3 Songs op 23: No. 1 Les berceaux, No. 2 Notre amour
Berkeley Mason, piano 19) Tuesday 13 August 1940, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Kilpinen, Yrjö: 4 Songs of the Fells op 52: No. 3 To Song
Henry Wood, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra Sjögren, Emil: 7 Songs of Tannhäuser op 3: No. 7 Sleepest thou my soul?
Henry Wood, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra Stenhammar, Wilhelm: 4 Swedish Songs op 16 No. 4 Fylgia
Henry Wood, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra Schumann: Liederkreis op 39: No. 5 Mondnacht Schumann: Myrthen op 25: No. 1 Widmung
Gerald Moore, piano
20) Wednesday 4 September 1940, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Bach: Mass in B minor, BWV 232 (arr. Henry Wood): Laudamus te
Henry Wood, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra Bantock: Songs of the East Set 3 No. 5 The lament of Isis Bantock: Songs from the Chinese Poets Set 3 No. 5 A Feast of Lanterns
Gerald Moore, piano 21) Wednesday 18 September 1940, 8.00pm, Queen's Hall Bach: Cantata No. 129, 'Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott', BWV 129 (arr. Henry Wood): Aria 'Gelobet sei der Herr, mein Gott'
Henry Wood, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra, anonymous oboe d'amore
NB. Due to intensified nightly air raids on London it was considered too dangerous to continue the Prom season and this concert was cancelled.
22) Tuesday 19 August 1941, 6.00pm, Royal Albert Hall Brahms: Rhapsodie, Op 53
Charles Proctor, conductor, Alexandra Choir, London Symphony Orchestra Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, 'Choral'
Henry Wood, conductor, Alexandra Choir, Noël Eadie, soprano, Parry Jones, tenor, Norman Walker, bass, London Symphony Orchestra Verdi: Rigoletto: Quartet 'Bella figlia dell'amore', Quartet 'Un dì, se ben rammentomi'
Basil Cameron, conductor, Noël Eadie, soprano, Parry Jones, tenor, Norman Walker, bass, London Symphony Orchestra
NB: This concert was rescheduled to start half an hour earlier at 6:00 pm to allow patrons to reach home before the war-time black-out.
23) Wednesday 29 July 1942, 6.30pm, Royal Abert Hall Bach: Cantata No. 53, 'Schlage doch, gewünschte Stunde', BWV 53 (arr. Henry Wood)
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra 24) Wednesday 12 August 1942, 6.00pm, Royal Albert Hall Handel: Hercules, HWV 60 Aria 'Where shall I fly?'
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra 25) Wednesday 18 August 1943, 7.00pm, Royal Albert Hall
Bach: Cantata No. 81, 'Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?', BWV 81 (arr. Henry Wood): Aria 'Jesus schläft, was soll ich hoffen?'
Henry Wood, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra 26) Tuesday 20 June 1944, 7.00pm, Royal Albert Hall
Rossini: Stabat mater: Aria 'Fac ut portem Christi mortem'
Basil Cameron, conductor, London Philharmonic Orchestra 27) Thursday 3 August 1944, 7.00pm, Royal Albert Hall
Donizetti: La favorita: Recitative & aria 'Fia dunque vero...O mio Fernando'
Adrian Boult, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra Vaughan Williams: Five Tudor Portraits
Adrian Boult, conductor, Roy Henderson, baritone, Goldsmiths Choral Union, BBC Symphony Orchestra
NB: This concert was cancelled by the authorities due to flying bombs ('doodle-bugs') which had started to fall on London in June 1944.
28) Thursday 30 August 1945, 7.00pm, Royal Albert Hall
Grieg: 6 Poems op 25 No. 2 A Swan Grieg: 6 Songs op 48 (probably arr. Henry Wood) No. 6 A Dream
Adrian Boult, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra Vaughan Williams: Five Tudor Portraits (Proms premiere)
Adrian Boult, conductor, Goldsmiths Choral Union, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Roy Henderson, baritone 29) Saturday 17 August 1946, 7.00pm, Royal Albert Hall
Handel: Rinaldo Recitative & aria 'Armida, dispietata...Lascia ch'io pianga'
Basil Cameron, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra 30) Tuesday 12 August 1947, 7.30pm, Royal Albert Hall
Vaughan Williams: Five Tudor Portraits
Adrian Boult, conductor, Croydon Philharmonic Society, BBC Singers, Roy Henderson, baritone, BBC Symphony Orchestra 31) Friday 6 August 1948, 7.30pm, Royal Albert Hall Grieg: Reminiscences from Mountain and Fjord op 44: No. 3 Ragnhild
Basil Cameron, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra Grieg: Peer Gynt op 23: Solveig's Cradle Song
Basil Cameron, conductor, London Symphony Orchestra
Since it was my enthusiastic reaction to Desmond’s Purcell and – especially – Grieg recordings accompanied by Harold Craxton which sparked off the present article, I will start be repeating more or less unaltered what I wrote there.
At the start of Grieg’s “Spring” there is a slight unsteadiness in Desmond’s voice. I think this must be a case of studio nerves, for towards the end, after the big climax, she provides some wonderfully steady long, soft notes, revealing exemplary control. It is noticeable with Desmond, like many singers in those days, used much less vibrato than we usually hear now. This means that any trace of unsteadiness was nakedly exposed.
But then, what a climax! This was the point when I realized the Desmond had one of those voices that, when unleashed in all its glory, can knock you for six. Not just with the volume, but for the emotional charge it contains.
Having realized this, I found that the traces of unsteadiness at the beginning worried me less and less. Rather, I revelled in the way she builds the song up, colouring the phrases, preparing the listener, as it were, for the sudden rush of emotion. Then, in the aftermath, she subsides to dulcet tones. Craxton’s postlude is masterly in its poetic timing. This is Grieg singing and playing as good as it can come. If “The Return” is marginally less indelible, this is probably Grieg’s doing.
One is prepared to be snooty about Purcell singing from the 1940s. In truth, Desmond’s steady, vibrato-less production, her agility and her exemplary – and scarcely dated – pronunciation are much less removed from today’s authentic brigade than we would have imagined. She is, however, accompanied by the piano.
In “Evening Hymn”, Craxton uncritically takes on board a realization by Harvey Grace that doubles the bass at the octave throughout. Elsewhere he is light and nimble. One almost forgets that this is the “wrong” instrument. These recordings were made in 1943-44.
When surveying Astra Desmond’s other recordings, the music itself has to be an issue in a few cases.
Firstly, the coupling of two religious sweetmeats, the Bach-Gounod “Ave Maria” and the Bizet “Agnus Dei”, an arrangement of one of his pieces for “L’Arlésienne”. Gerald Moore begins the Bach-Gounod beautifully, so beautifully that the entry of the violin is a singularly unwelcome intrusion, and throughout one gets the impression that Moore would rather be playing the Bach original – as well he might. In fact, Eric Silverman plays with a tasteful, silvery tone – forgive the corny comment, but I would have used the same adjective even if he had been called Goldman. Desmond is fruity, with some big scoops in the descending octaves. Vocally, it is difficult to avoid this, and probably Gounod expected it, but Silverman and – especially – Moore have created a context that is too pure for such devices. In the end, this is neither one thing nor the other – not good enough to convince those who think Gounod should have left well alone, but not bad enough to be enjoyed by those who think this is good music. Much the same could be said of the Bizet. Moore and Silverman are too tasteful. Desmond tries to heat things up, but maybe this is a piece best left for stentorian tenors. These recordings were made on 13 August 1941.
Also in 1941, Desmond set down four sides – eight songs – of Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser’s “Songs of the Hebrides”. Here she was joined by the harpist Marie Korchinska. As will have been seen from the Proms listings above, Desmond made quite a speciality of these songs, which were hugely popular in their day.
It would be interesting to know if Desmond really thought these pieces were, at an artistic level, a Scottish parallel to the Scandinavian songs she propagated so vigorously. Time has not dealt kindly with them. Marjorie Kennedy-Fraser had actually collected the songs – using primitive recording equipment – from indigenous singers on the Hebrides. Thus far, her work was a serious example of burgeoning ethnomusicology. Unfortunately, it only needs half an ear to realize that she has topped and tailed them for drawing-room use, wrapping them in pretty wallpaper accompaniments. No one today will think them any more Hebridean than Amy Woodforde-Finden’s “Indian Love Lyrics” are Indian.
This might not matter so much if Kennedy-Fraser had created something with a validity of its own – as Canteloube did with his Technicolor “Songs of the Auvergne”. Unfortunately, while Kennedy-Fraser was composerly, she was not a composer. An obvious comparison might be with Bax’s “I heard a piper piping”, one of the composer’s “Five Irish Songs” which Desmond also recorded, with Gerald Moore. No doubt Bax thought he was being ever so Celtic, but in reality he was being Bax, and that’s a fine thing to be. Similarly, the “Celtic twilight” movement spawned plenty of music by such composers as Bantock and Boughton – some of which Desmond performed – that is not really Celtic, but is Bantock and Boughton, and those are fine things to be, too.
But I did appreciate the singing. Desmond’s voice has a mezzo richness, and a strong chest register, but she can also soar up creamily and lightly to surprising heights. She was usually billed as a contralto, but today she would be called a mezzo. She is closer in timbre to Janet Baker than to Kathleen Ferrier. Her production is always pure and steady, without a trace of wobbly vibrato, and her words are crystal clear. Her voice mingles beautifully with the harp. For Desmond, I might return sometimes to “Kishmul’s Galley” and, especially, “The Wild Swan”, which actually is rather beautiful. But enough’s enough!
The four sides of Grieg – five songs – that Desmond set down with Gerald Moore are all exemplary. So why was I not quite so bowled over as I was with the two she recorded with Craxton? Compare the way Craxton begins “Spring” with Moore’s playing of the opening chords of “A Swan”. Craxton seems to be improvising the music, inventing it on the spot. Moore plays very beautifully, yet somehow the music is not quite released from the printed page in the same way. Let us say that Moore is more classical. Maybe he would have been better with other composers, or other singers. As it is, Desmond herself is more classical, relating the music back to Schubert rather than revealing its romantic longing. But all the same, this is very fine Grieg singing, “A Swan” and “Spring Rain” in particular. The other songs are “The Autumn Storm”, “With a Primrose” and “Thanks for thy Rede”.
Also with Moore, Desmond set down a group of English songs. Maud Valerie White’s “When swallows homeward fly” is warmly sympathetic, though I must say there are better songs by this underrated composer. Of two brief Quilter songs – together on one side – “Damask Roses” is very nicely done. In “Love’s Philosophy”, Moore scampers away as if playing a Mendelssohn scherzo. Back in my days at Edinburgh University I had two colleagues who knew how to unleash a floodtide of youthful emotion from this song. I don’t know what happened to the soprano, but the pianist is now an internationally famed conductor. I wonder how he would play it today.
Bax’s “I heard a piper piping”, already mentioned, is beautifully turned. In Vaughan Williams’s “Linden Lea”, Moore tosses off the introduction at a disconcertingly brisk pace, but Desmond gently slows down and Moore then allows her quite a lot of space to express the poem. Maybe it’s just because one of my teenage loves was John Shirley-Quirk’s Saga record, which included this along with the best of all “Songs of Travel”, but I always think of this as a baritone song. Going back to the Shirley-Quirk version, the pianist Viola Tunnard immediately establishes an atmosphere of lazy summer romance, and their slightly slower tempo gives the singer all the space he needs with very little further manipulation. Maybe there is a lesson here, though. It is the modern method, as exemplified by Shirley-Quirk, to take a slower tempo and then stick to it. Older generations, as we hear from Desmond and Moore, were more likely to take a swifter basic tempo and then find space within it.
In the case of “Linden Lea”, I still prefer Shirley-Quirk and Tunnard, though oddly enough I appreciated Desmond and Moore better when I heard them again afterwards. In the case of Schumann’s “Frauenliebe und Leben”, which Desmond recorded with Phyllis Spurr on 18 September 1948, I find the “older” method totally effective and convincing. With a work as much recorded as this, I should either spend a week comparing all the versions I can find, or just rely on memory. Relying on memory, this seems to me one of the best versions I know. Desmond’s voice production – she was now 55 with over thirty years’ career behind her – remains refulgent and secure. She finds a wide range of expression, from tender simplicity to wide-eyed wonder, exultation and, finally, a masterly unwinding to the depths of pain, from which the piano’s poignant memory of the first song emerges. As I have already described, she tends to take fairly swift tempi – no hanging about in “Süsse Freud” for example – but then departs from these tempi quite freely for expressive purposes. It would be undesirable for a singer today to copy slavishly these vagaries, but it would be no bad idea to absorb the rationale behind them and then make it one’s own. A sympathetic pianist is obviously essential, and no praise can be too high for the apparent spontaneity with which Spurr seconds the singer’s interpretation. With Spurr, as with Craxton, Desmond seems just that little bit freer. Since she recorded with Moore in 1941, Craxton in 1943-4 and Spurr in 1948, dare I suggest that she did not find Moore an entirely ideal partner?
“Frauenliebe” took seven sides. The eighth contains nos. 1 and 3 of the “Liebesfrühling” set, op.37. These are gems of interpretation. What a pity we have no more. Yet, apart from the Vaughan Williams original singers’ “Serenade to Music” under Sir Henry Wood, Desmond’s official discography contains little else.
Four additional songs by Purcell were issued in which Desmond was accompanied by an unidentified pianist. These have been transferred by Dutton and a review by Em Marshall can be found on this site. At the foot is a discussion on the identity of the pianist, where we learn from Jonathan Woolf that Michael Smith, in his unpublished Decca biography (1999), believed these were also accompanied by Craxton. Jonathan also mentions a few unpublished sides made in the same period – Bridge and another Bax with Moore and Wolf with Spurr. Also with Moore in 1941, and issued, were two further sweetmeats, The Lord’s prayer and Love’s Old Sweet Song. No catalogue entry that I’ve seen names the composers. The latter, an old drawing-room favourite, is by Molloy. As for the Lord’s Prayer, one hopes it is not the version by Malotte, but it probably is.
Still in 1941, Desmond recorded Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory” and “A Song of Liberty” with unidentified mixed choirs and the Royal Artillery String Orchestra conducted by O.W. Geary. “A Song of Liberty” was Pomp and Circumstance March no.4 with words added for the big tune by A.P. Herbert. An obvious attempt to repeat the popularity of “Land of Hope and Glory”, it enjoyed a certain vogue during the war years, but has not lived on.
Much earlier in her career, Desmond recorded just two items: Hatton’s “The Enchantress”, with “Miss Lacey” at the piano (10 February 1920) and Sanderson’s “The Glory of the Sea”, with an unnamed pianist (18 April 1922). Rather later, HMV issued a live recording from a Royal Command Performance at the Royal Albert Hall for Empire Day – May 24th – 1938, of Purcell’s “To Heart-Easing Mirth”. Astra Desmond is joined by the sopranos Isobel Baillie and Elsie Suddaby. Unidentified massed choirs and an orchestra are conducted by Sir Hugh Allen (HMV C3016). This can be heard on YouTube. Given the brevity of the piece – half a 78 side, and half of it choral – it does not really add to our knowledge of Desmond.
A POSSIBLE CD TRIBUTE
All Astra Desmond’s official recordings, plus a good many, maybe even all, of the off-air retrievals, would go onto two CDs. More realistically, a CD of approximately 74 minutes might be made of the following:
PURCELL: From rosy bow’rs, Hark, the echoing air, I attempt from love’s sickness, Nymphs and Shepherds, Mad Bess of Bedlam, with Craxton GRIEG: 5 Songs, with Moore, 2 Songs, with Craxton ENGLISH SONGS: M.V. White, Quilter, Bax, Vaughan Williams, with Moore KENNEDY-FRASER: The Wild Swan, Kishmul’s Galley, with Korchinska SCHUMANN: Frauenliebe und Leben and two songs from op.37, with Spurr.
I wonder, though, if the market for this sort of disc has shifted. After all, the interested listener can download all this from CHARM, and has probably done so already. CHARM’s transfers are excellent, unless you actually like interventionist transfers, in which case your computer very likely has a programme that will enable you to mess about with the recordings yourself. For myself, I’d need some additional element to make me part with good money. A booklet with memoirs from people who knew Desmond might be one answer. I also wonder if any more off-the-air recordings exist. Those issued so far were all issued for the sake of some musician other than Desmond, usually the conductor. Might a search specifically aimed at Desmond yield a little more?
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