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Heracleitus
Charles Daniels (tenor)
Bridge String Quartet
Michael Dussek (piano)
rec. Church of St John the Evangelist, Iffley Road, Oxford on 15,16 January 2015 (Tracks 1-20; 22-24); St George’s Church, Chesterton on 8,9 May 2014 (Track 21)
EM RECORDS EMRCD036 [74:57]

This very interesting disc celebrates the talents of three of England’s greatest song-writer composers of the first quarter of the last century, two of whom (Butterworth and Gurney) were to remain inextricably linked to the conflict of the First World War—although the Houseman poems, for the settings of which they are, perhaps, most celebrated, were actually written in the shadow of the Boer Wars. Butterworth, who was decorated for conspicuous bravery, died on the Somme in 1916. Gurney, who was gassed in the Passchendaele offensive, was invalided home and resumed his musical studies and composing career but his experiences and fragile health, combined with an underlying bi-polar illness and exacerbated by the pressure of his creativity, tragically combined to burn out his sanity and he spent the last eleven years of his life committed to an asylum. Warlock (the pseudonym of Philip Heseltine) sought and achieved exemption from military service so it is somewhat ironic that his short life should have been ended by gas poisoning, although this seems most likely to have been at his own hand.

With tracks 1-7 we start with Gurney’s “Ludlow and Teme”, a setting of seven of Houseman’s poems from the sixty-three of “A Shropshire Lad”. There have been several recordings of this cycle, including offerings from Adrian Thompson on Hyperion (recorded in 1989, but released in 2004), James Gilchrist on Linn (2007) and Andrew Kennedy on Signum (2008). An earlier Hyperion recording by Martyn Hill appears to have been supplanted by the Thompson recording. Some may disagree but, based on a quick survey of recorded examples and judging by earlier reviews it seems to me that, whilst there is little to choose between Gilchrist and Kennedy, Thompson’s recording is probably the one to beat so I use that as a reference.

Daniels was new to me. As one might expect both he and Thompson have very fine voices, well suited to this repertoire. Switching between them, the first impression I have is that the two voices are surprisingly similar, not unlike darker versions of Ian Bostridge, and differences are relatively minor. Although Daniels is the younger man, Thompson’s recording was made twenty-seven years ago so his sounds slightly the younger and more refulgent voice. If pushed I would say that Thompson’s less precise intonation sometimes brings to mind aspects of the voice of Peter Pears whereas Daniels’ more focused vibrato and occasional slight reediness hints at John McCormack, but these are fleeting impressions.

In the individual songs I slightly prefer the slower tempo adopted by Thompson in the first song but the lovely viola solo is captured beautifully on the Daniels recording. In the second song Thompson is dreamier but Daniels’ accompaniment is more characterful, and his accompaniment is also more interesting in the third song. In songs four and five Daniels is rather more deliberate and I prefer Thompson whereas, in song six (with almost the same timing) Daniels’ account seems to stride along better. In the final song Daniels’ relatively brisk account is fine but I marginally prefer Thompson. Honours are pretty even then and I would be very happy with either.

Tracks 8-11 are four of Butterworth’s settings for tenor and piano. Here the only comparable accounts I have been able to find are Anthony Rolfe-Johnson on Hyperion (with Graham Johnson’s piano accompaniment) for the first three songs and Mark Stone on Stone Records (with Stephen Barlow accompanying). The sheer beauty of Rolfe-Johnson’s voice at its golden best takes the honours here. Incidentally, note that Song/Track 5 of the EM disc is Gurney’s setting of “On the idle hill of summer” and Track 10 gives us the opportunity to compare Butterworth’s setting of the same poem, where Daniels’ account strikes me as almost as fine as Rolfe-Johnson’s. For the last song I feel that, good though he is, Stone is outclassed by Daniels.

Tracks 12-16 give us the world premiere recording of Butterworth’s only surviving chamber work—at least in the form he left it. The Suite for String Quartet apparently dates from around 1910 and it was only resurrected as recently as 2001. The booklet notes do not offer any suggestions as to what prompted its composition other than that the composer was immersed in the folk-song revival at the time and may have been influenced by Debussy (whose own quartet dates from 1893). Of course Butterworth was a friend of Vaughan Williams, who was also engaged in collecting folk songs, but VW’s own early foray into the string quartet medium (1898) was probably not the spur to the Butterworth work and bears it no particular similarities. The work is in five movements, although the style of the very brief Scherzando second movement suggests that it might have been intended purely as an introduction to the third movement Allegro. Of all the movements the first probably shares most characteristics with the better-known works of Butterworth, including the most obvious folk-song influences. This first movement was recently broadcast by the Carducci Quartet but the complete work has also been made available—albeit in an arrangement for string orchestra by Kriss Russman—and this has also been broadcast and recorded (for Naxos/BIS).
The Bridge Quartet give us a splendid performance of the complete Suite and it is good to hear it in its original form. That said Russmann’s arrangement also works very well. By one of those amazing coincidences I bumped into Russmann’s wife at a party, soon after the Naxos/BIS CD was released, and we briefly discussed the work but I neglected to ask her why Russmann had felt the need to make the arrangement. At any rate, in his fine recording, the work sounds as if it could have been intended for a larger group so, perhaps, that answers the question.

Tracks 17 and 18 are given over to “Heracleitus”, the Warlock song of 1917 (based on the poem by W. J. Cory) that gives the disc its title, followed by the very brief “Sweet Content” of 1919 (which is based on the poem by Thomas Dekker). The booklet makes the point that Warlock is known to have arranged a number of his songs for voice and string quartet, with the quartet parts closely following the piano versions. Most of these arrangements have been tracked down but three, including those of the present two songs, remained elusive so reconstructions were made by John Mitchell (who provides the relevant notes) “safe in the knowledge the songs in this format would have met with the composer’s approval”. In this format the recordings can justly claim to be world premieres although “Heracleitus” has appeared on disc before (on a Dunelm/Diversions CD performed by Paul Martyn-West accompanied by Nigel Foster that was appreciatively reviewed by Em Marshall for MWI and “Sweet Content” appeared on a very well-received Helios disc performed by John Mark-Ainsley accompanied by Roger Vignoles. “Heracleitus” is a rather downbeat song and Daniels captures its essence well with, to my ear, a rather more appropriate voice than that of Martyn-West. On the other hand Daniels’ brisk performance of “Sweet Content” gives rise to slight articulation problems in the cluttered Elizabethan “hey nonny-nonnys” and I prefer Mark-Ainsley’s slower account.

Back to Butterworth for tracks 19 and 20. “Fill a glass with golden wine” and “On the way to Kew” (both based on poems by W. E. Henley) here have string quartet accompaniment. These are lovely performances and, again, I feel that Daniels’ voice is to be preferred to that of Mark Stone (who only has piano accompaniment).

Little remains of Gurney’s prolific output of chamber music. After the violin sonata of 1918/19 he composed a rhapsodic string quartet in A (unpublished) which has not yet been recorded (although a YouTube video of a public performance of it may be available). He wrote a ‘cello sonata soon afterwards’, probably in 1921. Then, in a two year burst of intense creativity, prior to his incarceration in 1926, he is known to have written a further twenty or so string quartets and other chamber works. Following Gurney’s death in 1937 Gerald Finzi made a quick survey of all the manuscripts and, on the head of the page on which they were catalogued, he noted: “Everything on this page is useless”. Sadly, most, if not all, of these works are now missing, presumed destroyed, with the exception of a quartet in D Minor from 1924, for which copies of the parts have survived, albeit heavily annotated by Gurney. The full quartet is, apparently, now under reconstruction by Philip Lancaster and Track 21 provides us with an advance glimpse of the work in the form of this Adagio movement, a touchingly beautiful, uneasy and intense piece, here given a lovely and poignant world premiere performance. As Lancaster’s note says, “This movement……makes one wonder at what we have lost.”

The final three tracks on the disc are devoted to three songs by Gurney with piano accompaniment: “The Cloths of Heaven”, “Severn Meadows” and “By a Bierside”. Paul Agnew’s fine performances of these songs on Hyperion constitute the principal rival versions but, by and large, Daniels matches Agnew’s sensitivity and the performances on the present disc are very acceptable.

The recording is generally fine and well-balanced. At high volumes I was a little concerned that the acoustic around Daniels’ voice was slightly constricted (less open than one or two of the Hyperion recordings, for example) and that the voice had a slightly hard edge. At normal listening volume this was, however, not really a problem.

The booklet is a highly informative, multi-author collaborative affair and provides useful texts of all the songs.

Bob Stevenson

Contents
Peter WARLOCK (1984-1930)
Heracleitus [3:21]
Sweet content [1:18]
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
Suite for string quartet (1910) [18:23]
When the lad for longing sighs [1:41]
Bredon Hill [4:47]
On the idle hill of summer [3:03]
With rue my heart is laden [1:38]
Fill a glass with golden wine [1:51]
On the way to Kew [3:34]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Ludlow and Teme, seven songs for tenor, string quartet and piano (1919) [18:22]
Adagio (from String Quartet in D Minor) [7:39]
The Cloths of Heaven [3:08]
Severn Meadows [1:53]
By a Bierside [4:19]

 




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