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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) - (Fraternity 1919??) [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, Summertown, Oxford 3-5 September 2015
NAXOS 8.573584 [77:48]

This is a valuable, well-planned and well performed anthology of part-songs by two fine British composers. Jeremy Dibble's typically astute liner makes the point that Ireland's fame rests more on his piano works and solo songs - his partsongs remain stubbornly unfamiliar. This may be in part - pardon the pun - because they are largely individual works and so whether in recital or on disc they tend to be one of many pieces. Hence this is an excellent chance to get an overview of Ireland's writing for small chorus from the student The Peaceful Western Wind written in the 1890's right through to his contribution to the 1953 Coronation anthology A Garland for the Queen to which Ireland contributed the quietly poised The Hills.

Given the range of five decades it is no real surprise that there is stylistic variation too. The early songs exhibit the direct influence of Parry and Stanford - nothing wrong in that - with just enough glimpses of the composer's own voice to ensure individuality. Interesting to compare how at 29 years old Ireland sets Spring the Sweet Spring [track 5] to Moeran's inclusion of the same text as the third of his Songs of Springtime written when he was 37 [track 18]. Ireland makes more of the onomatopoeic bird-calls and sets the text in a flowing 4/4 time. Moeran's compound time pays tribute to the Elizabethan madrigals that inspired the cycle. Another direct comparison of setting styles is Weep you no more, sad fountains [tracks 2 and 24] set when both composers were 30. Ireland's has the fluency of Parry's Songs of Farewell with the passing dissonances carefully prepared and achingly resolved – it’s rather beautiful although I would never have guessed it was by Ireland in an innocent-ear test. Moeran's setting finds a more introspective, pensive response to the text. This was early in his introduction to Elizabethan music by Philip Heseltine but it shows how quickly and effectively he assimilated the liberating influences of this earlier style of music. Further comparisons with this specific text are possible since Moeran re-set it as While she lies sleeping - the seventh song of Phyllida and Corydon. This is the most chromatically tortuous of the three and a highlight of the cycle.

The range is both the strength and weakness of the Ireland settings. The aforementioned The Hills and Immortality are disarmingly beautiful - the former's nostalgic quote from Elgar's First Symphony surprisingly but touchingly effective - but the self-consciously idealistic These Things Shall Be oddly stilted. I assumed the latter would simply be a re-working of the melody used by Ireland as part of his 1937 choral/orchestral work of the same name. The same John Addington Symonds text is used but it seems to have generated some confusion between the liner and the disc cover. Jeremy Dibble refers to it as the 1919 contribution by Ireland to The Motherland Song Book under the title Fraternity. I suspect whoever compiled the disc's cover information has been misled by the assumption that the work is the aforementioned choral/orchestral setting. I see that Dibble has in fact simply copied his own contribution from the John Ireland Companion edited by Lewis Foreman and published by The Boydell Press. Adding to my confusion is the fact that that same publication lists Fraternity as an SATB hymn tune with organ accompaniment - here the version is sung a capella. Whatever, it remains a rather four-square hymn tune, out of place in the midst of more interesting part writing. They told me, Heraclitus [track 13] is another gem skilfully set for men's voices with Ireland providing a setting at once austere but sensual.

Pianist David Owen Norris joins the proceedings for two piano-accompanied settings. One an arrangement from 1989 by Mansel Thomas of the ever popular Sea Fever which works extremely well in this setting for solo bass with male voice accompaniment over simple chordal piano writing. Ireland's contribution to the disc is completed by the relatively early (1911) In Praise of Neptune [track 15] which can be heard on a Dutton disc in the solo voice and orchestra version but again confusingly in the liner is referred to as a "muscular unison song" although here it is performed in the legitimate SATB alternative.

Aside from the already mentioned and rather beautiful Weep you no more, sad fountains, all of the Moeran works come from a concentrated decade, 1929-39. It could be argued that this was his period of greatest development as a composer so overall it’s no surprise that there is a greater consistency across the songs. In part this is aided by the fact that in the main they are grouped into two collections; Songs of Springtime and Phyllida and Corydon. Both quite deliberately revisit an Elizabethan aesthetic from a 20th Century perspective. The latter is the later, longer and probably greater work. But curiously, it has fared less well in the recorded catalogue. Paul Spicer's version - which includes the other cycle too - on Chandos seems to be the only competition and that is now some twenty-three years old (when it was marketed as a premiere recording). Competition or not, the Spicer still sounds very well and, good though the Carice Singers are, at several points I would say Spicer and his Finzi Singers edge them out for finesse and a more subtle insight. Take track 29 - Said I that Amaryllis - Parris and his Carice singers set a cracking pace and it’s an impressively virtuoso piece of singing in its own right. Only when set against Spicer's substantially slower but more sprung version do you realise that tempo alone does not get to the heart of this work. The Chandos recording seems better at allowing the skill of Moeran's part-writing to be fully audible. The Songs of Springtime have been better represented in the catalogue - as part of mixed composer anthologies. I enjoyed Musica Beata's recording from 2011 - using the same church location as here - possibly even more refined and true to its Madrigal origins than this version (review). The Beata singers used 13 singers compared to the Carice complement of 20. Both are substantially better than the version from the City Chamber Choir recorded for the BMS (review) although that programme is valuable for the rareness of the repertoire that completes the disc including the starkly powerful Moeran setting Robin Hood borne on his bier which Dibble references in the liner. This has yet to receive the recording it deserves. However, the City Chamber Choir are flatly recorded and vocally challenged.

With so few versions of these rather wonderful works to choose from it seems rather picky to criticise this new disc. The Carice Singers under George Parris are fresh-voiced and alert and sensitive to the text. The intonation is good - as recorded there is a slight tendency to balance the voices to the top end of the choral group. Personally I prefer a middle-blend - the ear is naturally drawn 'upwards' towards leading lines so they do not require any further preferential treatment in the balance. Diction and ensemble is good and the acoustic serves them well. I have not heard this group's earlier Naxos disc of Warlock/Heseltine's music (review) but I see that they are due to explore Bax's demanding repertoire soon - that will be very interesting to hear.

All in all a very fine disc - full texts are provided except for The Hills, the liner - even allowing for the mentioned confusions - is valuable and interesting. Running to nearly seventy-eight minutes, this is a generously-filled disc. This repertoire is far from easy to sing but to do so is richly rewarding for both listener and choir so I am glad to see its cause being so strongly argued by this ensemble of young performers.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John France

 

 




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