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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Celebrating English Song
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Susie Allan (piano)
rec. 2017, Rectory Farm, Noke, Oxford
Texts included SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0177 [72:42]
Although not mentioned in the documentation, this release pays tribute to a remarkable annual series of recitals organised each summer by Jennie McGregor-Smith. Under the title Celebrating English Song these recitals were given at Tardebigge, Bromsgrove for, I think, 13 years. Sadly, the 2016 programmes were the last; the venture has now come to an end. What better way could there have been to finish than with a recital by Roderick Williams and Susie Allan. They chose a programme of their favourite English songs to bring down the curtain on Jennie McGregor-Smith’s concerts and this CD duplicates exactly the programme that they presented on that occasion.
And what a programme it is. Virtually all the “big names” among composers of twentieth century English song are represented here with great cycles by Butterworth and Finzi to bookend the programme – I strongly suspect that Gurney’s Sleep was the encore. There are very few pieces here that are new to the discography of this much-recorded baritone. For instance, he recorded Let us Garlands Bring in 2004 (review) and Six songs from A Shropshire Lad in 2010 (review). There are recordings of the complete House of Life and Songs of Travel, both of them dating from 2004 (review). Personally, I don’t think that any duplication matters a bit. One “justification” – if such were needed – is that those discs which I’ve mentioned have mostly been single-composer discs. Here you get the benefit of experiencing the music of the composers in question in the context of music by other hands.
I’ve heard Roderick Williams sing Butterworth’s Six songs from A Shropshire Lad several times in recital; it’s a set of songs which he does exceptionally well and they suit his voice to a tee. Here, the first phrase of ‘Loveliest of Trees’ is a delight, the high opening perfectly placed. Throughout this set of songs Williams’ performance is distinguished by wonderful clarity of diction and a flawless sense of line. He puts across the words with consummate understanding while the sound of his voice is a delight. I’ve always thought that he sings ‘The Lads in their Hundreds’ particularly well and this particular performance is no exception. The music is delivered with a nice, easy lilt, rubato employed in an ideal way. He conveys the sadness of the poem without any histrionics and the final couplet – “They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man, / The lads that will die in their glory and never be old” – tugs at the heartstrings as it should. In the final song, ‘Is my team ploughing’, the two separate voices are ideally differentiated: the pale, fragile enquiries from the dead man and his friend’s robust replies. The performance of this song is highly nuanced by both singer and pianist, crowning a very fine account of the set.
The Ireland group offers well-chosen contrasts. Sea Fever, the composer’s most celebrated song, is there but the other selections may be less familiar. We hear Great Things, a forthright and hearty Hardy setting. ‘In Boyhood’ comes from a 1928 Housman cycle, We’ll to the woods no more. It’s done very expressively here. ‘Youth’s Spring Tribute’ is one of an earlier set of three songs, grouped together under the title Marigold. I liked both song and performance very much.
I’ve come to admire the songs of Ian Venables greatly over the years and Roderick Williams has been a notable advocate of them for quite some time. The two songs selected for this programme can also be found – in string quartet arrangements – on an important disc that Williams made in 2014 devoted to Venables’ songs (review). A Kiss is a Hardy setting from 1992 and we learn in the notes that Venables found this a very tricky poem to set, not least on account of its structure. It’s not an easy text but Venables’ setting “conceals” that, as does Williams’ way with the song. The music describes a wide compass – to which Williams, with his enviable top register, is ideally suited – and is rooted in fine melodic invention.
Silent Noon is one of Vaughan Williams’ most celebrated songs – perhaps only behind Linden Lea in the popularity stakes. This present performance features not only beautiful singing but also what I can only describe as rapt piano playing by Susie Allan, with every chord and note perfectly weighted and placed.
The trio of Gurney songs is well contrasted. Wilfred Gibson’s poem Black Stitchel evokes vistas from the Northumberland hill of that name at each of the four main points of the compass. The first two stanzas inspire Gurney to rhapsodic music but he responds acutely to the darkening tenor of the last two stanzas. The darkening of thought in Black Stitchel is followed by the perceptive choice of Lights Out. Edward Thomas’ poem contains deep thoughts and Gurney’s setting of them is very eloquent. The present performances of both of these Gurney songs are admirable, displaying great empathy with and understanding of both words and music. After this we need some light relief and it comes in the shape of Captain Stratton’s Fancy. This John Masefield poem was also set by Peter Warlock but Gurney set fewer stanzas and in his final verse the words are rather different to what we hear from Warlock – perhaps Gurney was relying on memory? It’s a hearty song which Roderick Williams sings with great relish. I bet that when he and Susie Allan gave this programme live the interval occurred at this point
It's perfectly acceptable to extract individual songs from VW’s cycle Songs of Travel. The only snag is that when you hear Roderick Williams sing ‘The Vagabond’ with such firm, focused tone you’re left wanting more: the whole cycle, in fact.
Roger Quilter’s Weep you no more, sad fountains is a prime example of English melancholy, both in terms of the words and the music, and it’s beautifully done here. After the very brief, jolly interlude during which Jillian of Berry charges our glasses, E J Moeran’s The Pleasant Valley, a James Joyce setting, provides not so much another example of English melancholy as a case of Anglo-Irish melancholy. Songs such as this don’t feature so often in recital and it’s good that Roderick Williams selected it here – he sings the complete set of seven songs from which it is taken, and much more besides, on the Chandos complete survey of Moeran’s solo songs (review).
Ian Venables’ second representation on the programme is Flying Crooked, a setting of Robert Graves’ poem about the cabbage white butterfly. Unpromising material for a song, you might think, but Venables’ witty writing, not least for the piano, brilliantly evokes the hither-and-thither fragile flight of a butterfly. The song is most entertainingly done by Williams and Allan.
Britten’s poignant The Salley Gardens benefits from Williams’ easy, fluent delivery. I must admit that I’ve never greatly cared for the way that Peter Pears delivers The Ploughboy. Williams’ rendition of this song about the ultimate social climber in the bygone age of rotten boroughs is much more to my taste.
We began with a great English song cycle and we end with another – I say that because I bet the Gurney song was an encore when the programme was given live. Williams and Allan give a memorable account of Finzi’s set of masterly Shakespeare settings. I love the light cheerfulness they bring to ‘Who is Sylvia?’ ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ is one of the select number of truly great English songs and here it receives an exquisite and profound performance, the piano part ideally weighted and Williams’ warm tone caressing the words. ‘O mistress mine’ is given with tripping lightness – you can sense the smile on Williams’ face just from the sound of his voice. Finally, all the nuances in the text of ‘It was a lover and his las’, expertly reflected in Finzi’s music, are picked up. This is a superb performance of Let us Garlands bring.
As I say, I suspect Gurney’s Sleep, another great song, is an encore. It’s hard to conceive of a better ending to this programme: Williams’ singing is eloquent while Susie Allan’s pianistic touch is magical.
This is, quite simply, an exemplary recital of English song. The musicianship and perception that these artists display in every song makes for a deeply satisfying and very engaging listening experience. SOMM have supported their artists with high production values. The booklet, set in a very clear font – some other labels, please copy – is excellent, including a good set of notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. I don’t believe I’ve previously heard a recording made at this venue but on the evidence of this disc Rectory Farm, Noke is an ideal location for song recital recordings. Engineer Paul Arden-Taylor has produced excellent results, not least in terms of the expert balance between voice and piano.
With Christmas just around the corner this is an ideal present for you to give anyone who loves English song – but be sure to buy an extra copy for yourself.
John Quinn Contents George BUTERWORTH (1885-1916)
Six songs from A Shropshire Lad [14:00] John IRELAND (1879-1962) Great Things [2:14] Sea Fever [2:25] In Boyhood [1:53] Youth’s Spring Tribute [3:44] Ian VENABLES (b 1955) A Kiss [4:20] Ralph VAUGHAN WILIAMS (1872-1958)
Silent Noon from The House of Life [4:09] Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937) Black Stitchel [2:11] Lights Out [3:45] Captain Stratton’s Fancy [2:42] Ralph VAUGHAN WILIAMS
The Vagabond from Songs of Travel [3:12] Roger QUILTER (187-1953) Weep you no more, sad fountains [2:05] Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930) Jillian of Berry [0:39] Earnest John MOERAN(1894-1950) The Pleasant Valley [1:25] Ian VENABLES Flying Crooked [1:09] Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976) The Salley Gardens [2:40] The Ploughboy [2:00] Gerald FINZI (1901-1956) Let us Garlands bring [14:48] Ivor GURNEY
Sleep from Five Elizabethan Songs [3:11]