Arthur SOMERVELL (1863 - 1937) Cycle of Songs from Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ George BUTTERWORTH (1885 - 1916)
Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ Edward ELGAR (1857 - 1934) Twilight, Op. 59 No. 6 (G. Parker) [3:27] Clapham Town End (Trad. ed. Percy Young) [3:15] The River, Op. 60 No. 2 (‘P. D’Alba’) [3:30] The Shepherd’s Song, Op. 16 No. 1 (B. Pain) [2:44] Modest and Fair, from ‘The Spanish Lady’ (Jonson) [1:51] Still to be neat, from ‘The Spanish Lady’ (Jonson) [1:53] O Salutaris Hostia (ed. Percy Young) [4:41]
John Carol Case (baritone)
Daphne Ibbott (piano)
rec. 1974, University of Surrey Hall (Somervell and Butterworth), produced by John Borwick; 1969, unknown location and producer (Elgar). ADD HERITAGE HTGCD 297 [68:58]
Before I review this fitting commemoration of John Carol Case, who died in 2012, readers may be interested in a reminiscence. In the early 1970s, when we were all suffering power cuts and three-day weeks, John Carol Case and Daphne Ibbott came to Basildon in Essex, near where I then lived, to give a recital at the Towngate Theatre. The usual 30-or-so people that one might expect to support a cultural event in Basildon were present, myself included. We were warned in advance that if, as was threatened, the power went off at 9.00 p.m., we would all have to go home. Sure enough, during the interval of the concert all the lighting except the emergency lights went out, and we were told that the second half would not proceed. Joan Reid, who had been secretary of Basildon Music Society when there was such a thing, said to me: ‘We’ve got a piano at home. Why can’t we have the rest of the concert there?’ I urged her to approach the manager, he approached the artists and they agreed, so we all piled into cars and went to the Reids’ home to have the second half of the concert by candle-light in their front room. I ought to recall every note or syllable that was played or sung, but I was so excited by the novelty of the experience that all I can remember are some Britten songs, including ‘The Salley Gardens’. I can assure everyone, however, that it was a lovely occasion, that hearing Case sing at such close proximity was thrilling and that the artists rallied round as if it was wartime, not just a power cut. I expect they remembered the evening for the rest of their lives. It must have been their most unusual recital.
A year or two after that experience, the duo recorded a Pearl LP (SHE527) entitled ‘John Carol Case Farewell Album’ including the Somervell and Butterworth songs on this CD. Somervell’s Maud, as I shall call it for convenience, has an unusual history. The original 1898 Boosey publication, which my grandmother bought and had bound into an album with her maiden name embossed on the cover, contained just 12 songs. I am indebted to the Somervell expert Garry Humphreys for telling me that ‘Maud has a garden of roses’ was added for the 1907 edition, although the music paper, etc. indicates it was written at the same time as the others. The 1898 score has ‘Sung by Mr Plunket Greene’ emblazoned on the front, which ought to indicate that he had already sung the cycle in concert, but Humphreys assures me that the first complete performance (of 12 songs) was given by Lawrence Rea at the Salle Erard in Great Marlborough Street, London, on 2 November 1899. I found confirmation in an annual musical roundup in The Times, which said that the songs were ‘first sung as a whole’ by Rea. I also discovered that Frederick Keel sang four of the songs on 26 May 1899, so there were probably other partial performances in the early days. The songs are, however, best heard as a cycle: although Somervell sets fewer than half of Tennyson’s Maud poems, and does not necessarily set each complete text, he does keep the tragic narrative line of the sequence, which is lost in a partial performance. Apparently Harry Plunket Greene did sing the cycle on a number of occasions and was its principal exponent. Humphreys points out that he uses some of the songs as illustrations in his book Interpretation in Song. (He also, incidentally, gave the première in 1905 of Somervell’s cycle A Shropshire Lad, the first musical settings of Housman.) A further complication is that Somervell departs slightly from Tennyson’s text at a few junctures – Humphreys suggests that he wrote the poems down from memory and never, for some reason, corrected his mistakes.
The cycle’s recording history is extremely frustrating. Plunket Greene made very few records and none from Maud. Keith Falkner recorded two songs in the 1930s for HMV. Roy Henderson did three songs for Columbia and in 1944 made a complete recording, which was duly pressed by Decca for imminent release. Then the pianist Eric Gritton rightly complained that his name did not appear on the labels. The pressing run was destroyed and the cycle was never re-pressed – obviously no one thought of the simple expedient of putting stickers on the labels. Amazingly, the recording was listed in WERM. Henderson thought the performance was his greatest on record; and I was able to publish a limited edition for readers of Classical Record Collector, using Roy’s own test pressings. Even then the gremlins which had dogged Maud intervened: one of the sides had gone missing and we had to use a previous cassette transcription for ‘Dead, long dead’! During all this kerfuffle I was able to get to know the performance well and it is nonpareil. If any enthusiast cares to write to me (firstname.lastname@example.org), I should be able to supply a CD-R for the cost of the postage.
John Carol Case’s recording is credited with reviving interest in Maud, although I have to say that it did not ignite my interest. Coming back to it now, after a long interval, and having got to know Henderson’s interpretation in the meantime, I can see exactly why it did not break through to me. For one thing, the balance is slightly skewed, so that Ibbott’s superb piano playing is a little too forward and the voice is a little too backward. A very small change in the balance would have helped, but the cycle makes cruel demands on the range of a singer and Case, in his 50s and near to retirement, does not have the low register or the vocal heft to cope with both the tessitura and a too-loud piano. In the dramatic opening song, he is clearly struggling, and so the cycle gets off to a sticky start. In the next two songs he is more comfortable and although his tone has lost some of its velvet, you notice his fine legato. ‘O let the solid ground’ is fluently sung and played. ‘Birds in the high Hall-garden’ is nicely sustained but the effect is to keep us slightly at arm’s length. ‘Maud has a garden of roses’ is a flowing song that brings the best out of both artists. ‘Go not, happy day’ is a particularly well-known poem and both respond ably to Somervell’s excellent setting. Case sounds fully involved, in fact quite ardent, in ‘I have led her home’. Then we come to the best-known poem, ‘Come into the garden, Maud’, made even better known by Balfe’s marvellously tuneful setting. Somervell rises to the challenge with quite an effective setting, if not as catchy, but Case is tested by the lowest notes. ‘The fault was mine’ – and here it helps to have Tennyson’s original texts to hand, to assist in understanding the context – has a dirge-like piano introduction: it is very well played by Ibbott and Case sings with full involvement. In ‘Dead, long dead’ he is more passionate, even desperate: phrases such as ‘To have no peace in the grave’ register strongly and at ‘enough to drive one mad’ he is quite wild, unnecessarily so, I think – Henderson achieves a ‘less is more’ effect at this point. At ‘Ah me’, marked Tranquillo and mezza voce in the score, he is suitably quiet, and the tone at ‘bury me, bury me’ is thoroughly desolate. The penultimate song is very sad and ‘My life has crept so long’, retitled as an Epilogue in the 1907 edition, is well shaped by Case: his lower tones are a bit dusty but his singing as a whole is nice and forthright. To sum up, this is an interpretation to be taken seriously, but in view of what follows, I wonder how well Case really knew the work. Humphreys says he did perform Maud several times and even broadcast it, yet one never feels that the music is really ‘in the voice’.
What a change when we move to the Butterworth songs. The balance is still awry but the beautiful drawn-out opening phrases of ‘Loveliest of trees’ immediately instil confidence. Case seems more at ease and sustains his slow tempo masterfully, although he and Ibbott speed up a little towards the end. They find a good tempo for ‘When I was one-and-twenty’, and ‘Look not in my eyes’ is nicely phrased. ‘Think no more, lad’ is forthrightly delivered and ‘The lads in their hundreds’ is pleasantly done, with especially fine enunciation. In the final song, perhaps Butterworth’s masterpiece – and certainly one of Housman’s best poems – Case, while never sounding too outlandish, finds a spine-chillingly eerie voice for the dead man and a suitably forthright one for his living friend. I made a quick comparison with John Cameron’s version and I think Case is even better. It is worth buying the disc for this mini-cycle alone, and I wish he and Ibbott had added the second group of five songs: they are admittedly less compelling than the ‘famous six’ but from such performers they would have been doubly welcome.
The eight Elgar songs, which constitute Case’s contribution to a Saga LP (STXID5304) shared with Mary Thomas, prompt the thought that Elgar is underrated as a song-writer; actually he is underrated in every sphere, in this age of Mahler worship, but let it pass. Five years younger, the baritone has a palpably fresher tone and his diction is as immaculate as ever. ‘Twilight’ is well phrased, at a broad tempo – I notice a rustle of LP surface noise but it does not recur in the other songs. ‘Clapham Town End’, a Yorkshire folksong, is a bit of fun and is enjoyably performed, although you could argue that Case is a little too refined for such rollicking fare. He finds quite a lot of voice for ‘The River’ and declaims it well, with a good dynamic range: it is very dramatic. ‘The Shepherd’s Song’ has a nice flowing tempo and is pleasingly sung, as are the two Ben Jonson settings, Elgar in faux medieval mode. ‘Rondel’, another glance backward, has a final outburst which is very well handled. ‘O Salutaris Hostia’ is gravely sung, with fine tone.
The bad news is the amount of distortion on the voice throughout this disc. It is slightly better in the Elgar songs – more clearly recorded in every way – but is still present. There are mistakes in the accompanying notes. To mention just two, Case did not record all of Finzi’s Hardy settings with Howard Ferguson – two cycles were allotted to the tenors Robert Tear and Neil Jenkins (review). Also Jean Stewart was not a singer. She was a well-known violist and a close friend of Vaughan Williams, who composed his Second String Quartet, with its prominent viola part, ‘For Jean on Her Birthday’. She even influenced its composition, telling him when he confessed that the Scherzo would be a year late: ‘Make it a wicked Scherzo’. Which he did.
Contents Cycle of Songs from Tennyson’s ‘Maud’ I hate the dreadful hollow [1:35] A voice by the cedar tree [3:41] She came to the village church [1:23] O let the solid ground [0:59] Birds in the high Hall-garden [2:48] Maud has a garden of roses [1:35] Go not, happy day [1:13] I have led her home [2:35] Come into the garden, Maud [3:17] The fault was mine [3:12] Dead, long dead [3:35] O that ’twere possible [1:48] My life has crept so long [4:44] George BUTTERWORTH (1885 - 1916) Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ Loveliest of trees [3:15] When I was one-and-twenty [1:18] Look not in my eyes [2:10] Think no more, lad [1:13] The lads in their hundreds [2:16] Is my team ploughing? [3:15] Edward ELGAR (1857 - 1934) Twilight, Op. 59 No. 6 (G. Parker) [3:27] Clapham Town End (Trad. ed. Percy Young) [3:15] The River, Op. 60 No. 2 (‘P. D’Alba’) [3:30] The Shepherd’s Song, Op. 16 No. 1 (B. Pain) [2:44] Modest and Fair, from ‘The Spanish Lady’ (Jonson) [1:51] Still to be neat, from ‘The Spanish Lady’ (Jonson) [1:53] O Salutaris Hostia (ed. Percy Young) [4:41]