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Norman PETERKIN (1886-1982) Songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano)
Adrian Farmer (piano)
rec. 2016, Concert Hall of the Nimbus Foundation, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
English texts included LYRITA SRCD362 [68:53]
I’d not heard of either Norman Peterkin or his music until this disc was issued. For background information I draw upon the very sympathetic and interesting picture painted in the booklet essay by his friend, Alastair Chisholm. Peterkin was born in Liverpool to parents whom he later described affectionately as “a warm-hearted Southern Irish mother devoted to music, and a very canny hard-hearted Scottish seagoing father with not a note of music in him.” Peterkin spent a good amount of his working life in the music business, firstly for the Liverpool music firm, Rushworth and Dreaper which in those days was sufficiently substantial that it had a Singapore office to where young Peterkin was despatched in 1911. Later, between 1924 and 1947 he was an increasingly important figure in the Music Department of Oxford University Press. Early retirement in 1947 could have given him the chance to resume more fully his composing which his busy schedule at OUP had disrupted. Sadly, however, his wife fell ill in the 1950s and Peterkin cared for her until she died in 1960. It doesn’t appear that he composed anything at all after 1967 though he enjoyed a long old age when he was, as Chisholm puts it, “deeply involved in the music of others.”
It would seem that his compositions comprised largely – perhaps wholly – songs and music for piano. I don’t know how many songs he wrote but 30 of them are included here, counting each of the Five Poems from the Japanese as individual items. The songs chosen by Charlotte de Rothschild and Adrian Farmer cover the period 1918-1952 though the majority date from the 1920s and only one, A Little Wind Came Blowing, comes from later than the early 1940s. It’s relevant to say a word about the dating of the songs. The documentation is up to Lyrita’s usual high standards but one important detail was lacking: no composition or publication dates were given for the individual songs. That’s important information, especially when one is trying to place in his career individual works by an unfamiliar composer. I’m indebted to Chris Howell who kindly supplied the publication dates of all the songs via the MusicWeb Message Board. I’ve incorporated the dates into the track listing.
The songs themselves are attractive and communicate well with the listener. On this evidence Peterkin had a good melodic gift. His piano parts are full of incident which perhaps reflects the fact that he was no mean pianist himself and had something of a reputation as an accompanist. I enjoyed listening to this collection though I have to say that I don’t find in the songs the depth of utterance that one finds in, say, Finzi or Gurney; such was probably not Peterkin’s way. Nor does one find the same discerning eye for a text that those two composers possessed. I’ve included in the track listing the source of the texts of each song and it will be seen that quite a number were settings of Celtic poems – perhaps in part that reflected the composer’s parentage,
Looking back over my notes made while listening to the songs I find that the words “attractive” or “appealing” appear quite frequently. The first of those adjectives would apply, for instance to All Suddenly the Wind Comes Soft (a text which John Ireland set as Spring Sorrow) There’s a nice flow both to the sung line and the piano part in The Garden of Bamboos and Sleep, White Love is a calm, rather beautiful lullaby. Equally lovely is The Song of Fionula and in A Little Wind Came Blowing Peterkin takes some words by his wife and fashions them into a pretty song. Rather different is the humour in Little Red Hen. Peterkin conveys the melancholy of Rune of the Burden of the Tide. I infer from the notes that I Heard a Piper Piping may have been his most popular song during his lifetime; it has an attractive lilt to it.
Charlotte de Rothschild is a committed advocate for these songs. However, her voice is not entirely to my taste; it can develop an edge, especially in her top register, and there are occasions when she seems taxed by a high-lying line. In any case, I wonder if it might have been preferable to engage an additional singer, perhaps a baritone, to offer contrast; it would have been interesting to hear what a male voice might make of some of Peterkin’s songs. Throughout the programme Adrian Farmer is a most sympathetic and supportive pianist.
It's good that a selection of Norman Peterkin’s songs have made it on to disc. They deserve a wider audience and I’m glad to have heard them. However, I think my colleague, Jonathan Woolf hit the nail on the head in describing the composer as “a quiet, minor voice”. Truth to tell, it would be hard to make a stronger claim for him.
I think I was unfair to Lyrita in chiding them for not providing the composition dates for the individual songs. Antony Smith of Nimbus has advised me that "We note your comments about the lack of composition and publishing dates and wanted to confirm that this was not by accident. When compiling the project and working closely with Alastair Chisholm it became clear that this was not going to be possible. It appears that Peterkin was largely in the habit of writing then consigning his work to the back of a dark cupboard. The very few published songs were all made available many years after they had actually been written and gave a very false impression of the creative moment. It was for these reasons that we deliberately chose not to include only partial or misleading dates."
My Fidil is Singing (Joseph Campbell) (1935) [2:11]
The Song of Fionula (Fiona Macleod) (1935) [2:59]
Five Poems from the Japanese (1918) [4:35]
All Suddenly the Wind Comes Soft (Rupert Brooke) (1935) [2:09]
Pierrette in Memory (William Griffith) (1925) [1:51]
O Men from the Fields (Padraic Colum) (c. 1924) [1:38]
The Garden of Bamboos (From the Annamese) (1924) [1:13]
Advice to Girls (From the Chinese) (1924) [1:17]
Never More, Sailor (Walter de la Mare) (1925) [3:09]
Little Red Hen - Irish Folk Tale (Patrick Joseph McCall) (1935) [3:40]
A Little Wind Came Blowing -An Irish Air (Marie Peterkin) (1952) [3:00]
Sleep, White Love (Joseph Campbell) (c, 1940) [3:46]
The Chaste Wife’s Reply (Chang Chi) (1923) [2:41]
Hours of Idleness (Han Yu) (1923) [1:54]
I Wish and I Wish (Joseph Campbell) (1925) [2:49]
The Song of the Secret (Walter de la Mare) (1935) [1:52]
The Fiddler (I.M. Maunder) (1925) [1:43]
If I Be Living in Éirinn (Patrick Joseph McCall) (1927) [2:49]
Dubbuldideery ‘The Monkeys’ Journey Song (Walter de la Mare) (1924) [4:53]
Song of the Water Maiden (Walter de la Mare) (1925) [1:50]
So, We’ll Go No More A-Roving (Byron) (1929) [1:57]
I Heard a Piper Piping (Joseph Campbell) ( (1924)[1:35]
Rune of the Burden of the Tide (Fiona Macleod) (1925) [3:25]
The Bees’ Song (Walter de la Mare) (1940) [2:19]
The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls (H. W. Longfellow) (1943) [3:16]
Beata Solitudo (Ernest Dowson) (1919) [4:21]