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Charles Wilfred ORR (1893-1976)
The Complete C.W. Orr Songbook - Volume 1
Along the field; When I watch the living meet; The Lent lily; Farewell to barn and stack and tree; Oh fair enough are sky and plain; Hughley steeple; When smoke stood up from Ludlow; Silent noon; Tryste noel; The brewer’s man; The Earl of Bristol’s farewell; Whenas I wake; Slumber song; Fain would I change that note; When the lad for longing sighs; The carpenter’s son; When I was one-and-twenty; Soldier from the wars returning; When summer’s end is nighing; ’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town; Loveliest of trees, the cherry
Mark Stone (baritone)
Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. 2010, Potton Hall. Suffolk.
STONE RECORDS 5060192780123 [62:07]

The Complete C.W. Orr Songbook - Volume 2
With rue my heart is laden; This time of year; Oh, when I was in love with you; Is my team ploughing; On your midnight pallet lying; Plucking the rushes; Bahnhofstrasse; Requiem; The time of roses; Since thou, O fondest and truest; Hymn before sleep; While summer on is sleeping; The lads in their hundreds; The Isle of Portland; 1887; In valleys green and still; Into my heart an air that kills; Westward on the high-hilled plains; Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers
Mark Stone (baritone)
Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. 2011, Potton Hall, Suffolk
STONE RECORDS 5060192780192 [59:52]

C.W. Orr, a gifted practitioner of English song, has had scant attention on disc or in the concert hall. In days of yore (1981) there was an LP (Unicorn RHS369) of songs by Orr and Howells from Bruce Ogston, Philip Langridge and Eric Parkin. Sadly, that disc has not seen the light of day on CD - a pity, as the interpretations were excellent. The occasional song has been included in anthologies but that’s about it. These discs are the first systematic survey of Orr’s songs. Elsewhere you can find less than a handful of works, miniatures all, in other genres (Cotswold Hill-Tune, dedicated to Eugene Goossens; Midsummer Dance recorded by the dedicatee Penelope Lynex; Sarabande and Minuet) but song was Orr's thing.

The songs are predominantly of the 1920s and 1930s. They were written in several shades: those of the Great War, of the magnetic pull of the poetry of A.E. Housman and the music of Delius. None of these suffocates; indeed, the songs are often very impressive.

Orr was much under the influence of Delius. The older composer greatly admired some of Orr's songs. Orr's privileged upper middle-class background meant that, rather like many another English composer of the times, he could pursue composition without the tiresome distraction of having to earn a living.

The first seven tracks on Volume 1 comprise the seven songs of a Housman volume he published between 1927 and 1931. The initial three songs are characterised by Orr's butterfly-fluttering piano accompaniment. A criticism of some of them might be that the vocal line proceeds independent of the meaning of the words. Try Oh fair enough are sky and plain where the piano part is in the foreground and the melodic line stays somehow disconnected. Compare this with the best settings by Gurney and Vaughan Williams where the connection is both intimate and beneficent.

That divorce between music and textual meaning does not apply to one of Orr's finest songs - his setting of Farewell to Barn and Stack and Tree. It has a devastating narrative reflected in the baritone's line. Stone's way with the words “and my knife is in his side” is chillingly effective. Rural tragedy reaches out and connects with eternity.

Again, we encounter that separation or independence of voice and piano in the lovely lento of Hughley steeple. Good unitary cohesion between what happens in voice and in piano can be devastatingly effective as it is here and also in Warlock’s My Own Country.

The last song of the Housman sequence is When smoke stood up from Ludlow. It is driven by a stalking energy – a defiance of mortality. Shame about the poor blackbird slain with a well aimed stone by the yeoman ploughing the field. The ploughman's inner voice takes up the blackbird's song and claims that death will be the best rest. The music’s curvature into repose confirms this.

Then a break from Housman with the 1921 Silent Noon. These are the same D G Rossetti words set by RVW. This song was helped to publication by Peter Warlock. It’s very poetic - a lovely tranced Delian dream by comparison with the early old-English style adopted by RVW.

Tryste noel is rather sing-song at first but settles into languid midsummer drowsiness. The brewersman has a melodramatic and assertively fanfaring piano part. Then come two 17th century poems: The Earl of Bristol's farewell is shot through with grieving melancholia while Whenas I wake has a twentieth century romantic sensibility and a surprising Hollywood-style sentimentality.

Noel Lindsay's Slumber song is a further example of Orr’s honeyed sing-songery. It’s a fine lullaby to add to Warlock’s Balulalow and Gurney's Come Sleep. Fain would I change that note represents an enchanting embrace of words and piano - recalling Warlock’s In an arbour green though without Warlock’s vitality. Back to Housman for When the lad for longing sighs. This is darkly and even swooningly dissonant, like Warlock’s Beside The Stream. The Carpenter's Song with its hangman's cart benefits from a strong narrative; superb. “Live lads and I will die” rings out in an engagingly forbidding way. It can be grouped with Balfour Gardiner's fantastically dark The Stranger's Song (once heard done superbly by David Wilson-Johnson on BBC Radio 3). When I Was One And Twenty is another singsong gem. Soldier From The Wars Returning is dedicated to two lieutenants who died in 1917. This is another great song with a fine meeting of melody and drama. Clouds well up and lour until we reach the climactic homecoming – a real sense of crowns cast aside and journey ended. When summer's end is nighing, with its Delian piano part in step with the vocal line, takes us back to Orr’s predilection for the disconnect between words and music. ’Tis time I think is blessed with a nice melody though when we get to the words “Spring will not wait the loiterer's time” John Ireland and Ivor Gurney had a more masterly meld of words and music. Orr’s ‘dream’ ends well in a Delian sunset of considerable glory on the words “that shall not shower on me”. Loveliest of trees is a fragile blossom. Here there is nothing of rapturous folksong; instead we hear a potently dreamy mournfulness. The song passes atmospherically like a shifting and sliding dream, edge-less and with vision unfocused. The piano provides a degree of “anchorage”.

Commentary on the songs in vol. 2 can be found at the reviews by John France and Gary Higginson. I would just add that the song Bahnhofstrasse was Orr's contribution to The Joyce Songbook of the 1930s - an international project - which also included settings by Antheil, Bliss, Carducci, Goossens, Hughes, Ireland, Moeran, Roussel, Sessions and Van Dieren. The Joyce Songbook would itself make a valuable project CD for the right singer and pianist. To the best of my knowledge no-one has yet tackled this. Peter and Meriel Dickinson created an excellent BBC Radio 3 programme on this basis.

The words of each of these many-faceted songs are clearly and attractively presented in full in the admirable booklets. These are helpfully set out alongside the commentary for each song - a real labour of love. Biographical scene-setting is well done. We even get the dates of the poets whose words have been set.

The only biographical study I can recall is the one brought out by Thames Publishing in 1989 (Jane Wilson, "C W Orr - The Unknown Song-Composer").

Hearing these songs was a great pleasure too long deferred. There’s no doubt about the artistry, accomplishment and percipience of the artists. I just wanted to hear a stronger presence for the voice which takes a back seat to an assertively recorded piano. A more equal and equable balance would have been ideal; meantime that is no obstacle to the discovery of these multi-faceted songs.

From Stone, let's now have a complete Mary Plumstead and Margaret Wegener. A Michael Head Edition is also very much in order after Hyperion’s splendid entry on CDA67899 to place alongside Head's Lammas collection (see also here).

Rob Barnett

Previous reviews

Volume 1: John France
Volume 2: John France ~ Gary Higginson



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