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Shakespeare Songs Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
Five Shakespeare Songs, Op. 23 [11.32]
Three Shakespeare Songs, Op. 6 (1905) [8.30]
Four Shakespeare Songs, Op. 30 [7.50] Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Songs of the Clown, Op. 29 [9.54] Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Let Us Garlands Bring (1942) [15.46]
Krzysztof Bobrzecki (baritone) Anna Mikolon (piano)
rec. July and November 2013, Radio Gdańsk, Poland ACTE PRÉALABLE AP0352 [53.22]
More years ago than I want to remember I was brought in as piano accompanist at one of my elder sister’s singing teacher’s “evenings”. There was a fair amount of Quilter, in whose songs my “A”-level studies allowed me to sketch out most of the harmonies even as I failed to reach many of the notes. Since then my experience of the composer has been pretty much limited to a collection of folk-song arrangements (Naxos 8.557495), so I was pleased to request this CD in order to revisit his original compositions. Polish music and musicians are a particular enthusiasm of mine, too, and the presence on the programme of one of my favourite small-scale song cycles clinched the matter.
The earliest of Quilter’s Shakespeare settings, his Op. 6, was composed before the composer was thirty. “Come away, death” and “O, Mistress Mine” are affecting in their way, whereas “Blow, blow thou winter wind” provides no more than a generalised musical response to the text. By the time he came to his Op. 23 – I have been unable to establish a date – Quilter’s compositional voice had evolved a little. There is a certain subtlety about his use of major/minor keys in “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun”, and genuine melancholy in “Take, O take those lips away”. That said, few would be seduced, I think, by his amiable treatment of “It was a lover and his lass”, a setting that quite lacks the impulsiveness of youth so evident, yet so well hidden, in Shakespeare’s words ... and with, incidentally, an opening phrase so close to that of Morley’s famous setting that it could hardly have been coincidence.
Bobrzecki’s own booklet note, adequately translated, sets some striking ideas alongside others that will cause a few raised eyebrows. He is quite right to say “When daffodils begin to peer” concerns physical love, but Quilter’s setting in his Op. 30 group is hearty rather than earthy. Once again the poignant and melancholy character of “How should I your true love know?” seems to come more easily to him, and the cheerful “Hey nonny-nonnies” that close “Sigh no more, ladies” will bring a smile to many lips, though perhaps not always for the noblest of reasons.
Returning to Quilter after so many years confirms my memory of the composer as a gifted melodist. These songs are extremely attractive and can be warmly enjoyed on a superficial level. Only in rare cases can one say that the composer achieves that fusion of text and music that characterises a great song composer. Instead, he provides a musical accompaniment, and that will be enough to satisfy many listeners.
The real discovery here is Korngold’s set of five Shakespeare settings entitled Songs of the Clown, written in the United States to accompany a student show. “Come away, come away, death” is unusual in that it opens in the major key, and the setting as a whole is a highly expressive one. His view of “O Mistress Mine” is also unusual: its lofty tone suggests a fatherly adult advising a young woman not to waste her life with too much seriousness. Demanding a kiss at the end, therefore, seems both ambiguous and surprising, as does the short, wordless final cadence. Two tiny, rapid songs follow, before the set closes with an extraordinary, large-scale, mock-dramatic setting of “When that I was and a little tiny boy” from Twelfth Night. “The rain it raineth every day”, we are told, and in the sardonic bitterness of his setting, Korngold expresses in music his own very personal view of the text, a quite different approach from that of the much more conventional Quilter.
This is a luxuriously presented issue, with detailed notes in Polish and English and the texts of the songs presented in English only. The Swan of Avon himself adorns the front cover in the person of a bearded and be-ruffed Krzysztof Bobrzecki. The recording is fine, with a satisfactory balance between the singer and the piano. I actually began my listening with the Finzi. Bobrzecki opens the cycle with a most attractive sotto voce that promises well for the rest of the recital. The tempo indication of this song, “Come away, come away, death”, is Lugubre. It would be easy to go too slowly here, and the Polish duo avoid that, with a nice, swinging tempo at the outset. They allow the tempo to drag, however, both here and in “Fear no more the heat of the sun”, and this, combined with many unmarked expressive gestures undermines the processional character of both songs. A single wrong note from the singer in the phrase “Lay me, O where sad true lover never find my grave” is surprisingly jarring, too. There are many delicious touches from Bobrzecki throughout, and he has clearly thought his performances through in great detail and with as much attention to the poetic text as he has to the music. Too often, however, he places himself between the music and the listener, responding to powerful moments by inserting expressive devices where it would be better to let the music speak for itself, the composer having already done the work. Only the final song of the five, “It was a lover and his lass”, is a real disappointment: this duo capture only fitfully the youthful excitement and rapture of the young lovers. Anna Mikolon is an attentive accompanist with a most attractive lightness of touch, particularly in the three faster songs. She can be self-effacing, however, and reluctant to take Finzi’s fortissimo markings at face value.
Bobrzecki and Mikolon turn in an individual and attractive performance of the Finzi, and my comments about their performance can be taken to apply to the collection as a whole. In the end, though, what might decide the matter for many listeners is how upset they are by the singer’s English pronunciation. Non-English speakers will obviously be less troubled by so many modified or missing consonants and curious vowels. Curiously, perhaps because the music is less familiar, I was more conscious of the problem in the Quilter and Korngold songs. Maybe one can live with lines like “Then come kiss me, swede and twenty”, but then again, the words are timeless and well known ... and it is Shakespeare, after all.