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Sir Charles Hubert Hastings PARRY (1848-1918)
Twelve Sets of English Lyrics - Volume II
Sarah Fox (soprano)
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Andrew West (piano)
rec. 2017, Turner Sims Concert Hall, University of Southampton. DDD
Full texts included.
SOMM SOMMCD270 [61.05]

In 2016 I greeted warmly the first in a projected three-disc survey of Parry’s complete English Lyrics (review). The arrival of Volume II is very welcome, therefore. Recorded almost two years to the day after Volume I and in the same venue, we find that three of the same artists take part in this latest release: the exception is that Sarah Fox has replaced Susan Gritton as the soprano. It’s especially fitting that this disc should appear in the year that marks the centenary of Parry’s death.

In the opening paragraphs of his excellent notes, Parry expert Jeremy Dibble draws attention to the cultural re-evaluation that took place in Britain during the last decades of the 19th century. This process lessened – though by no means eliminated – the extent to which British composers were in thrall to German musical culture. As Prof. Dibble observes, “Although happy to absorb the musical precepts of German symphonic ideology, British composers and scholars sought to rediscover their own heritage….For Parry, this meant the assertion of English as a language to be sung.” Consequently, Parry’s use of English poetry in his English Lyrics was entirely deliberate, as indeed, was his use of the very title English Lyrics.

In all he composed 74 songs which he grouped together in 12 volumes of English Lyrics. These were written between about 1874 and 1918, though the last two volumes were not compiled and published until after Parry’s death. The present programme contains a selection from several volumes though we hear the complete Volume IX, comprising 7 songs, all to poems by Mary Coleridge. These come right at the end of the disc.

The choice of songs for this particular programme means that of the three singers we hear least from James Gilchrist on this occasion. However, he is allocated some excellent songs. There be none of Beauty’s daughters (Set IV) is a Byron setting and though it’s quite short in duration, in Jeremy Dibble’s words, it’s “a generous, large-scale conception for both voice and piano”. The setting of Keats’ Bright Star! also comes from Set IV (published 1897), though Parry composed it in 1885, revising it substantially before eventually including it in Set IV. It’s a fine song with an ardent vocal line and a flowing piano part; the ending displays no little feeling. Gilchrist also sings Dream Pedlary (Set XII, publ. 1920). The same words were later set by John Ireland as If there were dreams to sell. Parry’s setting is a wistful one which I like, though I admire the Ireland even more. I was interested to note that in the lines “Such pearl from life’s fresh crown/Fain would I shake me down” the use of sustained notes – or are they pauses? – pre-echoes Ireland’s setting.

Roderick Williams sings seven of the songs. These include the ardent When comes my Gwen (Set VI, publ. 1902), to which he brings discreet rapture, and the lovely, flowing And yet I love her till I die (Set VI), which has a suitably courtly air in Williams’ performance. Later in the programme, Williams has two notable songs. One is If thou wouldst ease thine heart (Set III, publ. 1895). Jeremy Dibble draws attention to a Brahmsian compositional device employed here by Parry. In fact, beyond that gesture, there seems to me to be a distinct echo of Brahms to the music, not least in the dark-hued piano part. It’s an eloquent song and Williams gives a very fine account of it. He also excels in What part of dread eternity (Set XI, publ. 1920). The words are anonymous but Jeremy Dibble thinks the author may be Parry himself. Both the words and the music are dark in tone and deeply felt – Dibble draws attention to Wagnerian chromaticism. Roderick Williams is an ideal choice to sing this song.

The majority of the songs in the collection fall to Sarah Fox and her response to Parry’s music gives considerable pleasure. We first encounter her in Shelley’s O World, O Life, O Time. This setting was composed between 1867 and 1870 but Parry revised it several times, most recently in 1912, and it only achieved posthumous publication in 1920 as part of Set XII. It’s an eloquent lament which Miss Fox does very well. She also does very well in the pensive melancholy of When we two parted (Set IV, publ. 1897). Gone were but the winter cold is a very inward, sorrowful song which comes from Set X, composed for Agnes Nicholls in 1909 (publ. 1918). It’s a fine setting and Sarah Fox is well suited to it. She also has the beguiling A Welsh Lullaby (Set V, publ. 1902) and she sings it beautifully.

The last seven songs on the programme comprise the complete Set IX (publ. 1909). The songs were chiefly composed in 1908 and were written in memory of Mary Coleridge who had died unexpectedly in 1907, aged 46. To the best of my knowledge, Set IX and the Shakespearian Set II (publ. 1886) are the only sets among the twelve which features settings of poems by a single author. As Jeremy Dibble observes, Set IX is the closest Parry ever came to a song cycle. There’s a good deal of variety in the songs – Parry chose well. For instance, two of the songs, placed one after the other, set fantastical poems. A Fairy Town is justly described in the notes as “an enchanting fantasy” and Parry responds accordingly. On the other hand, the poem The Witches’ Wood is more mysterious, even apprehensive, in character and Parry’s music reflects that. Whether I live is a pensive love song: Sarah Fox sings this lovely piece very expressively. I admired too her way with Armida’s Garden. The set closes with There, which is an elevated and expansive song. Sarah Fox is an ideal choice to sing this set of songs.

I enjoyed the singing of all three soloists on this excellent CD and at every turn they benefit from fine playing by pianist Andrew West. As was the case with the previous release, the Turner Sims Concert Hall proves to be an admirable recording location: the performers have been recorded very well by engineer Paul Arden-Taylor. The documentation accompanying the disc is excellent in every respect.

This SOMM series is giving us the chance to experience Parry’s songs on CD to a degree previously unparalleled. That brings the opportunity to evaluate his contribution to the art song genre. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the genre of English Song truly began to flower in the 20th century in the hands of composers including – but not limited to – Britten, Butterworth, Finzi, Gurney, Vaughan Williams and Warlock. However, as I get the chance to familiarise myself more and more with the English Lyrics through these SOMM discs, I’m increasingly coming to the conclusion that the distinguished lineage which I’ve just outlined should properly start with Hubert Parry.

I am keen to hear the final instalment in SOMM’s survey of the English Lyrics.

John Quinn


Track listing
When comes my Gwen [2:20]
And yet I love her till I die [3:05]
Love is a bable [1:37]
O World, O Life, O Time [2:20]
When we two parted [3:48]
Gone were but the winter cold [2:47]
There be none of Beauty’s daughters [1:36]
Bright Star! [3:20]
Proud Maisie [1:38]
Marian [1:39]
Dirge in Woods [3:06]
If thou wouldst ease thine heart [4:04]
What part of dread eternity [4:21]
Love and laughter [2:31]
A Welsh Lullaby [2:40]
Dream Pedlary [2:46]
Three Aspects [2:37]
A Fairy Town [2:27]
The Witches’ Wood [3:38]
Whether I live [2:22]
Armida’s Garden [2:05]
The Maiden [1:30]
There [2:35]

 

 




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