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Ernest John MOERAN (1894-1950)
Six Folksongs from Norfolk2 (1924) [15.19]
The North Sea Ground2 (1915) [2.38]
High Germany2 [2.04]
The Sailor and Young Nancy23 [3.08]
The Little Milkmaid2 [2.00]
The Jolly Carter23 [2.33]
Parson and Clerk2 [2.06]
Gaol Song23 [2.06]
Six Suffolk Folksongs12 (1932) [17.41]
Songs from County Kerry1 (1950) [15.55]
Adrian Thompson1 (tenor)
Marcus Farnsworth2 (baritone)
Weybridge Male Voice Choir3/Christine Best
John Talbot (piano)
rec. Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d’Abernon, Cobham, Surrey, 2320 and 27 May and 16 October 2010
NAXOS 8.571359 [65.41]

When I was living in Kerry in the early 1970s I got to know quite a few locals who remembered “Jack Moeran” from his final days when he lived on the west coast of Ireland. They recalled him principally as a heavy but companionable drinker whose company was always pleasurable. In their more inebriated moments they would also hint in darker tones about the manner of his death. The official account, that he had suffered from a cerebral haemorrhage before falling into the water at Kenmare, was coloured by suspicions that he had finally succumbed to one of his frequent bouts of depression which had led him to take his own life. Whether this was any more than unsubstantiated gossip, or whether there really was an attempt to conceal the truth at the inquest, I was never able to determine. Moeran’s biographers, I should add, are quite prepared to accept the coroner’s finding at the inquest that the composer was dead before he went into the water. At the same time they also agree that for the last six months of his life Moeran had given up drinking, a contention which those who knew him at the time denied.

What was however most surprising was that, while all these drinking companions knew that “Jack” was a famous composer, none of them who I met had ever heard a single note of his music. When I did play them recordings, they were amazed at how well this “Englishman” had absorbed the atmosphere of Ireland, and the slow movement of his symphony in particular earned their admiration for its capture of a “mist” drifting across the landscape - although it was actually written in Norfolk and based on one of the tunes included here. At such times, cradling their whiskey in front of the turf fire and crying quietly into their glasses, speculation about his death would once again rise to the surface, usually focusing around precisely what he was doing at the end of Kenmare pier during a storm at dusk in December.

At the time of his death Moeran had just published his Songs from County Kerry which conclude this CD, reissued by Naxos from an original recording by the British Music Society. They are coupled here with folksong settings - and others - from earlier in his career, when he was first being introduced to the delights of alcohol by friends such as Philip Heseltine (alias Peter Warlock) and Constant Lambert. Moeran had always been an avid collector of folksongs from traditional sources, following in the footsteps of Vaughan Williams and Grainger twenty years earlier. Indeed of the arrangements on this disc all but one were collected ‘in the field’ by Moeran himself. By making these settings for voice and piano, he ensured their survival; and although it is now fashionable in some quarters to sneer at such treatments — with the exception of Benjamin Britten — Moeran never dandifies or prettifies his material, seeking simply to capture the atmosphere of the originals rather than to gentrify them. To collect them onto a single CD in this manner is therefore most welcome, and we should thank the trustees of the Michael Hurd bequest who made the recording possible.

This disc was originally issued in 2011 on the BMS label and this Naxos release provides an abridgement of the substantial notes by Roy Palmer as well as an introduction to the music of Moeran by Paul Conway. As before, the complete texts are provided on the label’s website, but the words are crystal clear in any event. The release was welcomed by no fewer than three reviewers for this site – John France, Nick Barnard and Rob Barnett – and I do not propose to repeat here the substantial information regarding the music that they supplied at the time. However I would be remiss if I did not point out that Marcus Farnsworth, who has the lion’s share of the English settings, has subsequently established a considerable reputation; I encountered him a couple of years back in the superb production by Music Theatre Wales of Turnage’s Greek (now included in his updated biography in the booklet) where he displayed a wholly different side to his art, dramatic in the extreme. Here he is content to respond sensitively to the words without excessive pointing of them, and John Talbot is a most expressive accompanist. Some of the piano parts – such as The Oxford sporting blade and Gaol Song – have a sense of fun that anticipates Britten, and Parson and Clerk has a strong flavour of Warlock. It is good too to encounter the original setting of Lonely waters that later formed the basis for one of Moeran’s most atmospheric orchestral works.

The North Sea Ground is singled out in the booklet notes for additional comment; it is not actually a folksong arrangement, but an original and very early work which breathes all the atmosphere of a genuine folksong rather in the style of Vaughan Williams’s Linden Lea (which I have actually seen incorrectly credited to ‘anon’ on an old LP release), with perhaps a dash of Stanford’s Songs of the sea. The dates of some of the other settings are not determined with certainty but they all seem to have been written during the 1920s and 1930s. Members of the Weybridge Male Voice Choir make contributions to three of these; the booklet notes inform us that they number some sixty singers, but they don’t sound like more than a dozen or so voices here. In the Songs from County Kerry and two of the Suffolk folksongs the solo role is assumed by Adrian Thompson, displaying greater signs of unsteadiness than the much younger Farnsworth but equally responsive to words.

Those who missed this disc on its original release should lose no time in snapping it up now. It will reward not only Moeran’s growing band of admirers, but also those who enjoy English song settings. Those rewards will be great. A few of these songs have been recorded elsewhere – Ailish Tynan is superior to Thompson in The roving Dingle Boy from the Kerry arrangements – but the chance to hear them as a whole is not one to be passed up.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

 

 




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