Bright is the Ring of Words
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Songs of Travel (1901-1904) [23:43]
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
A Shropshire Lad (1910) [12:55]
Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Ludlow Town (1920) [9:34]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Let us garlands bring (1942) [15:01]
Chris Booth-Jones (baritone), Igor Kennaway (piano)
Texts not included
rec. Wyastone Hall, Monmouth, Wales, 2013
MAGPIE RECORDS MAG0502 [62:00]
This disc has already been reviewed comprehensively by Nick Barnard. Trying – successfully, I hope – to put Nick’s comments from my mind I deliberately left the disc unheard for a few weeks.
When I came to start to listen to it my first reaction was that there is a great deal to admire here. I don’t believe I’ve heard Chris Booth-Jones before but the brief booklet biography indicates a career of no little experience, stretching back across more than four decades. His voice is well-produced and he sings with welcome clarity and fullness of tone. Furthermore, his diction is impeccable. Normally I complain if texts are not included with a CD but on this occasion I shall say nothing: Booth-Jones’ diction renders printed texts unnecessary. I also admired very much the perceptive contribution – I deliberately avoid the word “accompaniment” – of pianist Igor Kennaway. Finally, I was delighted with the choice of programme which brings together three of the finest of English song collections and then earns further gratitude by including a much less familiar little cycle by Moeran.
So there’s much to entice and reward the listener here - and yet….. As I listened to the disc I found myself thinking each time that there is more to many of these songs than is revealed by Chris Booth-Jones and so I spent a pleasant and rewarding morning making some comparisons. For
Songs of Travel I selected Christopher Maltman’s 2002 Hyperion disc (CDA67378).That same disc also includes Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad but I also brought into the reckoning Roderick Williams’ 2010 recording (review). Williams provided the comparison for the Moeran: there may be other versions of this cycle in the catalogue but the only one of which I know is his which is part of the Chandos set of that composer’s complete songs (review). For the Finzi I turned again to Roderick Williams, whose Finzi recital disc I reviewed back in 2005.
In Songs of Travel Booth-Jones delivers the first three songs – and indeed the whole of the cycle in a straightforward, unmannered way. His singing gives no little pleasure and he is attentive to dynamics. I wish, however, that he hadn’t made an unmarked slowing on the phrase “There’s the life for a man like me” and on subsequent iterations of that same musical phrase. Maltman maintains the pulse, but still emphasising the phrase quite naturally, and I find that more satisfactory. Yet despite the accomplishment of Booth-Jones’s singing I felt a lack of personality and variety. Turning to Maltman I found what was missing. He just does that bit more with the words, inflecting them with greater meaning while avoiding unwanted exaggeration – Roderick Williams is similarly successful in his 2004 recording for Naxos (review). Well though Booth-Jones sings ‘The Vagabond’ I find Maltman just a bit more imaginative in his response to both words and music. In ‘Let Beauty awake’, one of many instances where I appreciated the fine playing of Igor Kennaway, I get more sense of fantasy with Maltman, especially in the second stanza. In ‘The Roadside fire’ Maltman’s approach seems lighter and more eager until we get to the meno mosso (“And this shall be for music…”) where he invests the music with more rapture than Booth-Jones seems to find in it. Booth-Jones chooses a marginally steadier core tempo and I think this robs the song of some of its eagerness. All this is not to say, however, that the Booth-Jones performance of the cycle is not a good one. For example, I like his forthright declamation at the start of ‘Bright is the Ring of Words’. However, I think that Maltman penetrates rather more to the heart of these songs and captures their youthfulness – RVW was, after all, only in his early thirties when they were written.
There’s a good deal to admire in Chris Booth-Jones’ account of Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. However, in the opening song, ‘Loveliest of trees’ I think that the sound of Roderick Williams’ voice is more persuasive in terms of portraying the twenty-year-old narrator of Housman’s poem. I like the light touch that Booth-Jones brings to ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’ but I don’t think he quite conveys the pathos in the last line of each stanza. Maltman and, especially, Williams do this better; Williams is particularly effective in conveying the poignancy in the last two lines: “They carry back bright to the coiner …” The last song, ‘Is my team ploughing’, with its twin voices, is especially demanding. Booth-Jones portrays the two former friends well; my only reservation would be that I’m not sure he quite conveys the sense of guilt in the surviving friend’s words in the last stanza. Williams is more successful in this respect though his recording was made in 2010 and recently I’ve heard him give even more searching accounts of this song more than once in live recitals: a new recording would be welcome. Maltman’s recording is something special. He is slower than his rivals in the verses where the dead man speaks and he deploys a pallid, ghostly tone that is amazingly effective – and which calls for sovereign vocal control. Voicing the words of the surviving friend he’s robust and forthright, just like Booth-Jones, until the last verse where he switches to guilt whereas Booth-Jones sounds almost defiant – which is an entirely valid point of view.
Chris Booth-Jones scores highly with me for including Moeran’s infrequently heard Housman settings, Ludlow Town. The second of them, ‘Farewell to barn and stack and tree’ has some big, passionate moments and Booth-Jones is excellent hereabouts, delivering these sections dramatically, as befits a singer of his operatic pedigree. On the Chandos set Roderick Williams is not as big of voice in these sections. On the other hand, I think he is more imaginative in the more subdued episodes in the setting. I don’t believe that Moeran matches Butterworth when it comes to ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’. The music, though the accompaniment is more elaborate than Butterworth’s, seems to me to be more matter-of-fact and melancholy is lacking. Booth-Jones sings it well but for me Williams gets more out of the setting because he does more with the words – his top notes are better produced, too.
It’s the Finzi set that I find most disappointing in Chris Booth-Jones’ recital. He seems to me to be too bluff in ‘Who is Sylvia?’ He takes ‘O Mistress Mine’ just a bit too steadily and so misses the twinkle in the eye; this is an elderly performance. By contrast Roderick Williams is lighter of touch in ‘Who is Sylvia?’ and much nimbler in ‘O Mistress Mine’, thereby conveying the sense of fun, especially in the latter, that seems to elude Booth-Jones. Unfortunately, Booth-Jones doesn’t seem to “get” ‘It was a Lover and his Lass’ at all. The tempo is too staid and careful and he misses the gaiety in the piece in a way that Williams does not. Indeed, Booth-Jones manages to make the song sound serious. I’m afraid he seems to miss the point of the last two songs in the set completely. In the middle of this set comes one of the great English songs: ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’. At the start Booth-Jones offers some dedicated singing. However, when the mood changes at ‘No exorciser harm thee…’ I miss a sense of mystery in his delivery. Williams is much better here, making the passage sound like a mysterious incantation. (Mind you, even Williams isn’t as daring at this pint as was John Carol Case in his recording of the orchestral version of this cycle (review); anyone who has ever heard the way he inflects the word “witchcraft” is unlikely to forget it.) When Finzi resumes the progress of the song at “Quiet contemplation…” Williams’ delivery is rapt and Booth-Jones can’t match him there.
I’m sorry that so many of my comparisons with other singers have placed Chris Booth-Jones at a disadvantage. However, there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to deliver songs like these and things that I admire in the performances of Christopher Maltman and Roderick Williams may not be to the taste of other listeners. There’s no doubting Chris Booth-Jones’ musicality or his commitment to the songs in question and, heard in isolation, the performances give much pleasure. The other two singers are partnered by excellent pianists but so too is Booth-Jones. And he does have one great advantage in that these four song collections are not otherwise collected together on a single disc, so far as I know.
I’m glad to have these performances in my collection and they deserve the attention of collectors who love English song but the performances of the other two baritones I’ve mentioned need to be heard as well.
The recoded sound is fully satisfactory. The booklet is a bit basic and there are no texts but, as I indicated earlier, so excellent is Booth-Jones’ diction that for once this is not a drawback.
Previous review: Nick Barnard