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Stephen WILKINSON (b. 1919)
The Sunlight on the Garden
Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Clare Wilkinson (mezzo), James Gilchrist (tenor), Matthew Brook (bass)
Anna Markland, Ian Buckle (piano)
rec. 2015, Wyastone Leys Concert Hall, Monmouthshire
SIGNUM SIGCD516 [65:15]

Stephen Wilkinson is better known - at least to me - as a conductor, principally of the BBC Northern Singers. They used to broadcast regularly on the BBC as 'an item' often heard in unusual repertoire - revivals and premieres. Their roll of honour included Barber's Reincarnations, Williamson's Symphony for Voices, Berkeley's Crux Fidelis, David Cox's Summer's Night, Hadley's Solitary Reaper, Julius Harrison's Blessed Damozel and one the finest extended choral items in the British repertoire, the exultant-athletic Hodie Salvator Apparuit by Christopher Brown. They also took on works by Alan Bullard, George Oldroyd, John Gardner, John Joubert and Nicholas Maw. There were a few LPs. The ones I recall were Abbey LPB736 (Holst part-songs and piano solos by Keith Swallow) and Hyperion A66092 (Bax choral works).

As a composer - and I am not sure what else he has written - Wilkinson takes his place in the canon of English song alongside the great and the modestly estimable including Carey Blyton, Ivor Gurney, Gerald Finzi, Geoffrey Bush, Michael Head, Robin Milford, Betty Roe, Mary Plumstead (how long before a CD of her unpretentious yet telling songs?), Pamela Harrison. Donald Swann, Ian Venables and Margaret Wegener. In fact, with a very few exceptions Wilkinson's songs more nearly resemble those of Britten, some of the more expressionist Warlock items and late Finzi than the more overtly lyrical stream represented by the names I have listed.

Wilkinsons' first response lies variously in mood, atmosphere, satire and abrasion. The suggestion is that he does not feel that he needs to shackle his musical treatment to the contour of the words and sentences. He shows sharply adroit judgement in his choice of verse. These are sound choices - mixing unusual, provocative, subtle and direct. All the words are printed legibly in what is a handsomely appointed 32 -page booklet which also includes the composer's commentary on the songs. I am only sorry that we have not been given the years in which each song was written.

Grantchester is long and vivid, weightless and hauntedly pallid to match the almost skeletal atmosphere of the words. It's a little like Warlock's Along the stream and Van Dieren in the bleaker reaches of the Chinese Symphony. The hour-glass proceeds on pattering bony feet and ends explosively. Another shivering song is At the manger where the composer's daughter (who also provides an introduction in the booklet) is the mezzo. It sets intriguing words by Auden with Mary singing over the Christ child and presciently 'knowing' his fate. She sings the bleak line "Dream while you may". Those words seem to toll and sour simultaneously. Maude Gonne takes down a book (tr. 14) shares that bleakly drifting atmosphere and once again it is Claire Wilkinson who sings this song.

Hardy's Proud songsters here buffets, flits and storms. It is not as telling as the Finzi setting and the music seems to bridge over rather than make intimate contact with the words. Soprano Mhairi Lawson is excellent and notable for her singing of the word 'alone' on a note superbly borne upwards, ever upwards. Yeats' As I came over Windy Gap is a harum-scarum blend of wounding confidence, acceptance of fate and irony. Picking up on the avian theme we have Birdspeak - a little scena with operatic overtones. The Wind and the Moon is a poem by George Macdonald laden with wickedness and malice. James Gilchrist makes zephyr whistling noises between the verses. The words and the music to match are from another world - one once occupied by Algernon Blackwood, Richard Dadd, Arthur Machen and Andrew Lang's fairy books.

Joly Jankyn is nicely sly and encompasses both the spiritual and earthly. Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? are classic words and here a more softly lyrical impetus impels the song forward. There is more of Finzi and Geoffrey Bush about this as there is in To a young girl (tr. 12). The brevity that is In the bleak midwinter is a Christmas card of a piece and not a cheery one. Similarly chill is The gate in the wall which readily sends a frisson down the spine. It's a most moving setting.

I liked Chapels as sung by James Gilchrist. The poem is by Fred Pratt Green. This is not a conventional setting. Once again sentences skip and skim over the music and vice-versa. The poet (a self-declared backslider) clearly had little time for the Welsh diaconate and the music does not play down the poet's corrosive condemnation.

Clare Wilkinson is the mezzo in Heaven Fish to words by Rupert Brooke. It evinces dark concentration and a most imaginative left-field identification with fish. Come away, death is familiar from Finzi but Wilkinson is more pointed and faithful to the words. This is a very challenging and mournfully fine setting: bleak dissonance, pallor, misery and despair. Crabbed Age and Youth has lines and music that starkly alternate fragile age and supple youth. It recalls the dialogue in RVW's and Gurney's Housman settings of Is My Team Ploughing? without the melodramatic pay-off.

The garden is a setting of words by Marvell. It is subtle and constantly opens up often unfamiliar or ambiguous vistas. The sunlight on the garden is a lovely song to verse by Louis MacNeice. It is touching without being sloppy. The word 'dying' takes on a probably inescapable echo of the solo horn in Britten's Serenade.

The disc concludes with a Leigh Hunt poem (Jenny kiss'd me when we met) which untypically ends up as a jazzily accented cabaret song.

As can be heard on this disc, the English song tradition continues to bear fruit; singing, pianism and recorded sound are here productively allied.

Rob Barnett

1 Grantchester [5:34]
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Markland (piano)
2 Proud songsters [1:28]
Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Ian Buckle (piano)
3 At the manger [4:08]
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo), Ian Buckle (piano)
4 Joly Jankyn [3:13]
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo), Ian Buckle (piano)
5 Eternal summer - Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? [2:22]
Matthew Brook (bass), Anna Markland (piano)
6 Winter snow - In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan [1:05]
Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Ian Buckle (piano)
7 Chapels - I've seen so many chapels in Wales [3:04]
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Markland (piano)
8 Heaven Fish [5:53]
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo), Ian Buckle (piano)
9 The hour-glass - Do but consider this small dust [2:01]
Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Ian Buckle (piano)
10 Come away, death [3:23]
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Markland (piano)
11 Crabbed Age and Youth [2:02]
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Markland (piano)
12 To a young girl - My dear, my dear, I know [1:17]
Matthew Brook (bass), Anna Markland (piano)
13 O do not love too long - Sweetheart, do not love too long [1:35]
Matthew Brook (bass), Anna Markland (piano)
14 Maude Gonne takes down a book - When you are old and grey [2:32]
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo), Ian Buckle (piano)
15 Politics - How can I, that girl standing there [1:04]
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Markland (piano)
16 Spring and fall - Márgarét, áre you gríeving [2:39]
Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Ian Buckle (piano)
17 The garden - How vainly men themselves amaze [3:32]
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo), Ian Buckle (piano)
18 The sunlight on the garden [2:25]
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Markland (piano)
19 The gate in the wall - The blue gate in the wall [3:25]
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo), Ian Buckle (piano)
20 Running to paradise - As I came over Windy Gap [1:57]
Matthew Brook (bass), Anna Markland (piano)
21 Birdspeak - Do you ask what the birds say? [1:58]
Mhairi Lawson (soprano), Ian Buckle (piano)
22 The Owl and the Pussycat [3:00]
Clare Wilkinson (mezzo), Ian Buckle (piano)
23 The Wind and the Moon - Said the Wind to the Moon, 'I will blow you out!' [4:54]
James Gilchrist (tenor), Anna Markland (piano)
24 Kiss - Jenny kiss'd me when we met [0:44]
Matthew Brook (bass), Anna Markland (piano)



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