John IRELAND (1879-1962)
A Cradle Song (1912) [2:34]
Weep no more, sad fountains (1909) [2:07]
Laughing Song (1910) [1:00]
The Peaceful Western Wind (late 1890s) [2:01]
Spring, the sweet Spring (1908) [1:39]
When May is in his prime (1913) [2:56]
Cupid (c.1912) [1:06]
Fain would I change that note (1921) [2:16]
Twilight Night (1922) [2:54]
These things shall be (1936-7) [2:48]
The Hills (1953) [2:44]
Immortality (1942) [3:47]
They told me, Heraclitus (1925) [2:45]
Sea fever (arr. Mansel Thomas) (1913/1989) [2:40]
In praise of Neptune (1911) [1:55]
E.J. MOERAN (1892-1950)
Songs of Springtime (1929) [13:16]
Blue-eyed Spring (1931) [1:06]
Weep you no more, sad fountains (1922) [2:05]
Phyllida and Corydon (1939) [25:46]
The Carice Singers/George Parris
David Owen Norris (piano)
rec. St Michael and All Angels Church, Sommertown, Oxford 3-5 September 2015
NAXOS 8.573584 [77:48]
This splendid new CD presents part-songs from two of Britain’s finest composers. Neither are particularly known for their contribution to this genre, however listening to this disc reveals that this is an important and under-valued portion of each composer’s catalogue. The two main works presented here by E.J. Moeran have been recorded in their entirety including Chandos CHAN9182 for both works and the British Music Society (BMS417CD
review), Brilliant Classics (95216) and RTE Lyric (CD131) for ‘Songs of Springtime’. I will concentrate my commentary in this review on the Ireland part-songs many of which are new to me, and I guess to most listeners.
John Ireland is well served by the CD industry. There are recordings of virtually all his orchestral music, the chamber works and the songs. There are at present five versions of the more or less complete piano music. The organ music has been given at least two definitive recordings. It is the choral works that have been remained largely unknown. Four years ago, Naxos (8.573014) issued an excellent survey of Ireland’s ‘church’ music including the well-loved Communion Service in C and a selection of carols and anthems. The present CD explores the corpus of part-songs. I guess that this represents just under half of this genre. Without trawling through a number of record catalogues past and present, it is difficult to declare exactly which of these part-songs are premiere recordings. Certainly only a handful of them are currently in the current CD listings.
I chose to listen to the John Ireland pieces in more or less chronological order.
The earliest part-song is also the very first work listed in Stewart R. Craggs invaluable catalogue of the composer’s music. ‘The Peaceful Western Wind’ was composed whilst Ireland was still a student at the Royal College of Music during the late 1890s. It is very much a work of its time, with clear hat tips to Parry and Stanford. The text is by Thomas Campion (1567-1620). Philip Lancaster (The John Ireland Companion, 2011) has written that the setting is ‘cloyingly Victorian in its manner and sentimentality’; I found the work quite charming, refreshing and formally satisfying. The Carice Singers certainly play down any inherent mawkishness. The piece was not published until 1994, with the composer presumably having regarded the work as juvenile. Ireland was to revisit this text in 1912 with a setting for 2-part chorus and piano (it was entitled ‘See how the morning smiles’ which is the opening line of the second stanza).
The next work (chronologically) is ‘Spring, the sweet Spring’ with words by Thomas Nashe (1567-c.1601) dating from 1906, but published two years later. It was dedicated ‘To Lionel Benson esq. and the members of the Magpie Madrigal Society.’ It is largely strophic in plan, and makes use of the expected onomatopoeic echoes of the cuckoo’s song.
‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ is another part-song that has surfaced in recent years. The first ‘modern’ performance was in 2006. The text is by John Dowland (1563-1626). This is a sad and perfectly stated setting that considers death and the fact that ‘sleep is a reconciling.’ It was composed around 1906.
‘The Laughing Song’ was written in 1910. It is a tiny miniature lasting less than one minute. The words are by William Blake (1757-1827), but clearly harks back in ethos to the time of Dowland and Campion in its rustic evocation of ‘the grasshopper laugh[ing] in the merry scene’ and the ‘table with cherries and nuts is spread.’ Nature and human beings are at one in merriment. It may be short in length, but it is challenging in performance.
There are three versions of ‘In Praise of Neptune’ in the catalogue. The first is a unison song for equal voices and piano, the second is for mixed chorus (SATB) and piano (the present piece) and finally the composer made an arrangement for SATB and orchestra. All of these were realised in 1911. Once again Ireland has chosen Thomas Campion for his text, which is a fine, feisty evocation of Neptune’s realm relocated from the warm waters of the Mediterranean to the coasts of England. Ireland had already explored this watery domain in the tone-poem for orchestra, Tritons (1899).
Blake also features as the author of ‘Cupid.’ It is really a little madrigal, that sounds like a vocal scherzo. It is ‘wryly quizzical in its questioning demeanour.’ ‘Cupid’ was written around 1910/12.
‘The Cradle Song’ is yet another setting of a poem by William Blake. It was composed in 1912 and is dedicated to fellow composer Thomas F. Dunhill. This is a delightful little lullaby that is charged with innocence, but just occasionally has a harder edge. A delicious melody sung by the sopranos is supported by a gently chromatic accompaniment.
The song ‘Sea Fever’ needs no introduction or commentary. Written in 1913 to words by John Masefield (1878-1967), it is probably John Ireland’s best known work. There are more than a dozen recordings of the baritone and piano solo song currently available on CD. It has subsequently been arranged for various forces, including the present one (1989) for baritone solo, male choir and piano by Mansel Thomas (1909-86). This is a powerful version that reflects the ‘rough-hewn, male orientated, maritime world’ so beloved of the poet.
The choral work ‘These Things Shall Be’ is one of the Ireland’s masterpieces, even if the sentiment was rather na´ve (or optimistic!) when it was composed in 1936/7 with a historical background of the rise of Fascism and Stalinism. The composer made use of a hymn tune, the present song ‘Fraternity’ for mixed chorus, which he had written in 1919. It is derived from a poem by John Addington Symonds (1840-93). The words express the hope of a ‘brave new world’ after the ‘war to end all wars’. It is well-written, but more suited to performance as a part-song rather than as a congregational hymn.
Stewart R. Craggs lists ‘When May is in his prime’ as having been composed in 1920. That at least is the date of publication by Novello. The liner notes suggest it was completed in 1913. The holograph is lost. Strangely, it was not performed until a broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 18 October 1941. The words are by the English composer, playwright and poet Richard Edwardes (1525-66). It is an exaltation of the month of May that musically seems to hint at Tudor modalism.
‘Fain would I change that note’ was completed in 1921. The words are by the Scottish soldier, composer and viol player Tobias Hume (?1579-1645). This is quite simply a very sensitive love poem. It is suave in its effect, and features an attractive soprano part. A contemporary reviewer (Musical Times, October 1921) suggested that it ‘reminds us of the best work of Stanford in this field.’ I feel the musical language is just that little bit more ‘advanced’ than Stanford, but the point is well made.
I think that Ireland’s Christina Rossetti (1830-94) setting of ‘Twilight Night’ is one of the loveliest pieces on this disc. It was composed in 1922, around the time that Ireland was writing some of his best-known piano pieces including ‘Equinox’, ‘On a Birthday Morning’ and ‘Soliloquy’. It is ‘a heartfelt narrative of close friendship severed by distance and duty, yet imbued with the yearning hope of future meeting and remembrance.’
‘They told me, Heraclitus’ is an elegy by Callimachus, reworked by William Cory (1823-92), lamenting the death of the great Greek Pre-Socratic philosopher who stated that ‘no one ever steps into the same river twice.’ It is a sadly wrought piece of music, that again reflects on lost friendship. Ireland’s setting (1925) is for an unaccompanied quartet of mens’ voices (two tenors, two basses). If I am honest, I prefer Charles Villiers Stanford’s (1910/1918) version of the same poem, which is for mixed voices.
I have not come across Ireland’s setting of Henry P. Crompton’s (?) sonnet ‘Immortality’ before. This is a ‘late’ work from the composer having been completed in 1942. It is a backward-looking piece that nods to the part-songs of Stanford, Parry and Elgar. Yet it is none the worse for this. The music is a heart-breakingly beautiful in its exposition of Crompton’s sad, but inspiring lyrics.
The final (latest) work presented on this disc is John Ireland’s contribution to A Garland for the Queen. This was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain, to celebrate the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth in 1953. Ten poets and ten composers were bidden to create settings for mixed voices. The idea was to craft a 20th century ‘replica’ of the famous The Triumphs of Oriana (1601) which was presented to Queen Elizabeth I. The present series of songs is not a parody of the earlier cycle but it is certainly influenced by it.
John Ireland’s contribution is ‘The Hills’ which is a setting of a text by James Kirkup (1918-2009). This is one of the few numbers to has generally survived as an independent piece for 63 years of Her Majesty’s reign. It is a perfect combination of words and music. The text of the poem has not been included in the liner notes: presumably there are copyright issues.
‘Songs of Springtime’ by Ernest John Moeran were composed in 1929 when he was recovering from illness in Acle, Norfolk. They include seven delightful settings of verses by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), John Fletcher (1579-1625), Thomas Nashe (1567-c.1601), Samuel Daniel (1562-1619), William Browne (c.1590-c.1645) and Robert Herrick (1591-1674). They do not attempt to do anything save seduce the listener with their subtle rhythmical diversity and piquant harmonies. Each song is quite short, but there is an undefined continuity that binds them into a unified cycle. Moeran expresses a great affinity and sympathy for each text. There is an undeniable ‘Englishness’ about these part-songs that is both timeless and evocative of the English landscape and character. There is nothing here of the ‘Celtic Twilight’ that was to infuse some of Moeran’s music. If anything they are influenced by the choral music of Warlock and Delius. They are sung with the freshness and vivacity that the title of the cycle implies. They are not easy numbers to ‘bring off’ successfully: The Carice Singers give a satisfying and distinguished performance.
‘Phyllida and Corydon’ (1939) is specifically designed as choral suite to be sung as a complete entity. Moeran set nine poems by Nicolas Breton (1545-1626), Anthony Munday (c.1560-1633), Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), ‘Anon’. and Philip Sidney (1554-86). The composer has chosen to label each poem as either a ‘madrigal’, a ‘ballet’, an ‘air’, a ‘pastoral’ or a ‘canzonet.’ The harmonic language is more ‘advanced’ that the ‘Songs of Springtime’ written ten years previously. It has been criticised from displaying a vacillation between the styles of the Elizabethan madrigal composers and part-songs of Peter Warlock, Bernard Van Dieren and Fred. Delius. It is deemed to be a wee bit like oil and water. In my view, this is an enjoyable work that is full of delicacy and delight. I find no great problem with this stylistic disparity. The subject matter explores the lovesick existence of Phyllida and Corydon. The work was dedicated to Constant Lambert.
Two other lesser known part-songs by Moeran are included. ‘Blue-Eyed Spring’ which is a ‘pastiche’ Elizabethan setting of words by Robert Nichols (1893-1944). It is set for tenor solo and chorus. The music trips along with a rapid 6/8 time and features the inevitable ‘Fa-La’ accompaniment. It was composed in 1931. ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’ (1922) is a beautiful, deeply felt setting of words by John Dowland.
I cannot fault this CD. The choral singing by The Carice Singer supported by their musical director George Parris is inspired. They create an intimate mood to this repertoire that allows the listener to easily engage with each part-song. Their diction is perfect: virtually every word is crystal clear. Hugo Popplewell (bass) makes an excellent contribution to ‘Sea Fever’. Other soloist includes Ellie Carnegie Brown (soprano), Josh Cooter (tenor) and Emily Burnett (soprano). David Owen Norris contributes the piano accompaniment for ‘Sea Fever’ and ‘In Praise of Neptune’. The clarity of the recording is excellent. Jeremy Dibble has provided detailed ‘liner notes’ that put all these pieces into context. The text of the part-songs (with the exception of the James Kirkup contribution) are included.
All of E.J. Moeran’s part-songs listed on Geoffrey Self’s biography of the composer are now available on CD. On the other hand, there are plenty more part-songs by John Ireland to provide material for a subsequent disc of music. Furthermore, Ireland’s unison and two-part songs have been largely ignored. I look forward to this ‘oversight’ being remedied.