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)
rec. Wyastone Hall, Monmouth, Wales, 2013
MAGPIE RECORDS MAG0502 [62:00]
Before listening to one note of this CD the presentation and the programme leaps out as being well-chosen and appealing. Certainly, this is a compilation of some of the best-known and often-recorded English song-cycles from the first half of the 20th century but hearing them together makes for a deeply enjoyable and moving recital.
The two performers - baritone Chris Booth-Jones and Igor Kennaway bring to this disc a wealth of experience and insight which goes a long way to explaining the success of this disc. The skill of all four composers is that in their different ways they create songs of extraordinary craft. A superficial simplicity - even at times a near folksong naivety - masks a directness of utterance totally in tune with the chosen texts and the passion and pain hidden below the pastoral surface. What is required from the performers is to be confidently unaffected in performance - truly less is more. The liner-note is rather minimal so I had to look elsewhere for a biography of Chris Booth-Jones. Debrett.com no less furnished me with his birthday which left me surprised to read he is in his early seventies. I mention that only because his voice is in remarkably clear and full condition. Possibly just occasionally the highest notes in some of the songs sound less comfortable with fractional pitching issues than his middle and lower range and the vibrato is wider than I personally prefer. However, if I had been told this was a voice of a man considerably younger I would not have been surprised. More importantly any of these passing issues are more than compensated for by the robust yet flexible qualities he brings to all these songs which are ideal. His accompanist Igor Kennaway is better known as a conductor. Very good though Booth-Jones is I have to say that the greatest number of revelations afforded in these very familiar works came from Kennaway's piano playing which is some of the most insightful and sensitive I have heard in this repertoire.
The qualities of both performers are apparent from the first bars of the opening track. Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel are amongst of his earliest works - 1904 - that remain in the regular repertoire. He finds a fusion between Robert Louis Stevenson's poetry and a melodic flow that is both memorable and apt. Kennaway and Booth-Jones hit exactly the right character for these songs: from the tramping energy of the opening The Vagabound to the gentle ecstasy of The infinite shining heavens. Booth-Jones' voice has exactly the right rich resonant tone without any affectation or preciousness. At the cycle's heart lies the fifth song In Dreams and receives here a performance of penetrating intensity. Returning to this cycle, I find the range of emotion they cover deeply touching - especially so in the closing two songs: Bright is the Ring of Words (which gives this disc its title) and the final I have trod the upward and the downward slope. The last song is especially notable for being found in the composer's papers after his death and being added to the cycle posthumously. Both text and music of this closing song revisit the earlier ones. There is a sense of leave-taking, perfectly captured here, that is most moving.
When Vaughan Williams started the cycle he was a relatively young man with the open-road of his life stretching ahead. Much the same could be assumed of his younger - by thirteen years - friend and colleague George Butterworth. When Butterworth made his most famous cycle of Housman poems in 1910 few could anticipate the carnage that would be World War I. Butterworth was not the first composer to set A.E. Housman Shropshire Lad poems either. Arthur Somervell produced the first cycle of note in 1904 followed by Vaughan Williams' great On Wenlock Edge in 1909. Housman's antipathy to musical settings of his poems is well-known as is the fact they were written by him as a response to the Boer War not the First World War. What is remarkable is that a Professor of Classics at Cambridge should - almost as a hobby - produce verse that seemed to chime so movingly with the loss of innocence that both mechanical warfare and the industrial age brought to society. For many, the faux-naivety of the poems is just that - false, but one has to recognise that it struck a chord for many composers that resulted in songs that are arguably greater as musical works than verse alone. Undeniably, there is added poignancy in these Butterworth settings because he himself was one of "the lads that will never be old". There is real genius in this cycle by Butterworth - a feeling that somehow the melodies are both original but as old as the hills. Where Songs of Travel are art-songs - albeit wonderfully plain in the best sense, Butterworth's cycle is shorn of any artifice or affectation.
You can follow the score courtesy of IMSLP and the eye tells you what the ear suspects: that textures and accompaniments are stripped to the absolute bone. Butterworth uses chords and figurations that in lesser hands might seem as simple as a composition exercise but here are exactly right and just enough. This is where Kennaway works his particular magic. Booth-Jones is wonderfully poised and rapt in the opening Loveliest of Trees - the song on which Butterworth based much of his orchestral rhapsody - but listen to the closing few bars of piano solo where Kennaway fashions a gentle instrumental postlude of aching beauty and simplicity. Both performers take Butterworth's direction "sempre rubato e con espressione" to heart and apply it with subtle sophistication through the entire cycle. Butterworth blurs the folksong/artsong divide in the second setting When I was one and twenty but marking it "tune traditional". Certainly the text of the poem is well-suited to such a melody and again the performers do not try to wring more emotional weight from the setting than it can support. Fluidity is the key in the changing metre of the third song Look Not in My Eyes and again both singer and pianist are very good indeed at letting the lyrical line flow without any sense of inhibiting barline. This is the most chromatic and overtly emotional setting which provides a cleverly engineered - by Butterworth - contrast to some of the 'simpler' strophic settings. One of which is the following Think no more Lad. Butterworth avoids any sense of a simple melody being overly used by varying the accompaniment in each verse. I particularly like Kennaway's Puckish treatment of the p offbeats of the second verse while Booth-Jones heartily - as marked - proclaims "Oh, 'tis jesting, dancing, drinking, spins the heavy world around". I am not sure I've heard this carefully layered effect as well-pointed before.
The two closing songs of the cycle are the most famous. The penultimate song is The Lads in their Hundreds. Again, following the score, I am very impressed by the way in which Booth-Jones and Kennaway are both attentive to the detail of the score without being in any way inhibited or limited by it. So markings such as poco allargando are allowed to be just that - a slight pull in the tempo around a phrase end. Butterworth sets this as a jigging dance but somehow finds an emotional undertow that stops the simple tune becoming in any way trite. Another marvel of a piano coda sets the seal on a searchingly fine interpretation. Butterworth closes his cycle with one of the most famous of all of Housman's verses; "Is my team ploughing" - this is the imagined dialogue between a ghost and his living friend. Vaughan Williams set this a powerful scena in his Wenlock Edge making full use of the piano and string quartet accompaniment - as well as a dramatic reiteration of the climactic "Yes Lad" to produce a compelling setting. Much as I love that version I am not sure that Butterworth does not achieve more by being less overtly theatrical. Singers always have a decision to make about how much to characterise the difference between the voice of the ghost and the living friend. Booth-Jones finds a blanched fragile quality that contrasts well with his ruddy-voiced living man. Also, he chooses a very steady tempo - almost exactly the same as another version I enjoy from Christopher Maltman on Hyperion. In contrast both Roderick Williams on Naxos and Thomas Allen on EMI/Warner are more concerned with sheer beauty of tone production. I do admire the way Booth-Jones points words - "jingle" as in "does their harness jingle" is a case in point. Its a tiny little emphasis on the "j" that makes the word ring. Next to Maltman or Williams his is a more mature voice but again the artistry at work is ample compensation. Lastly, Kennaway provides another masterclass in poised pacing of the closing bars of the cycle - superbly performed. The last word on this work must be about the composer; given that Butterworth was only in his mid-twenties this is a work of extraordinary maturity and skill, the clarity of musical texture and thought belies his years.
Part of the joy of a recital such as this is the possibility of direct compare and contrast. So it proves with the short Moeran cycle which not only is also based on the "A Shropshire Lad" poems but includes another setting of The Lads in their Hundreds. I am a great admirer of Moeran but alongside the pure simplicity and insight of the Butterworth these settings seem a little busy and fussy. The first performance dates from 1920 so they are very early in Moeran's output and are of particular interest as these can be viewed as works written in direct response to his own wartime experience. This may well explain the more strenuous quality of the music. No complaints regarding these performances which exhibit all the same virtues as before. Moeran uses denser harmonies and textures than Vaughan Williams or Butterworth. He was much the same age as Butterworth when he wrote this cycle and while enjoyable and interesting it is less 'finished' and considered. The duplicate setting is interesting because Moeran uses a proto-Irish reel of much the same style to the one that he composed as the finale of his Violin Concerto but that underlines the sense that this is work in progress.
The disc is completed by another fine and justly famous cycle; Gerald Finzi's setting of Shakespeare given the collective title "Let Us Garlands Bring". Much as I admire this work I wonder if one of Finzi's Hardy cycle might have fitted the 19th century British Poet theme better? However this is a glorious work and Finzi's gently probing style is ideally suited to both Booth-Jones and Kennaway. The central song - and the longest - Fear no more the heat o' the Sun gets a particularly touching performance. Compared to say Bryn Terfel - who takes a full minute longer than here - Booth-Jones does not have the tonal allure but again his subtle word-pointing and the gentle lilt of the more flowing tempo allows makes this into a very touching lullaby/epitaph. Perhaps the "golden boys" referred to here form a connection with the other cycles after all?
Recorded at the Nimbus facility at Wyastone Hall this is a very well engineered and produced disc. The balance between voice and piano is perfect and the piano itself is an excellent instrument. The liner is brief, too brief really since it does not contain any of the texts - I assume that the cost of licensing these is prohibitive for a small label. It is easy to find all the texts/poems online. Their absence is mitigated by the fact that Booth-Jones' enunciation is exceptionally clear. For any English speaker, apart from the pleasure of being able to mull over the texts, every syllable is easily audible. The liner and the actual disc are graced with attractive artworks by Angela Thorpe. The disc is sub-titled "Great Things Vol.2". Volume 1 - which I have not heard - is an anthology of English song by Booth-Jones from 2006 which includes several of the songs sung here - but not as part of the complete cycles. His accompanist for Vol.1 was Clara Taylor to whose memory Vol.2 is dedicated.
The very considerable benefits of this disc are the exceptional accompaniments provided by Igor Kennaway and the insight and sensitivity of Booth-Jones' singing. In direct comparison to younger exponents it would be wrong not to say that a certain amount of vocal wear is audible but the ear soon adjusts and the many virtues remain. With age comes wisdom - this is a disc bursting with wise music-making and as such should be cherished.