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The Gift of Poetry
Sir Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, Sir John Betjeman, Robert Donat, Orson Welles, Laurie Lee (readers)
No recording details provided
ALTO ALN1968 [78:42]

This is the latest in Alto's series of generously timed discs presenting classics of spoken poetry issued by. The others are Poetry Album (Robert Donat; Alec Guinness; Laurie Lee; James Mason) ALN 1958; Poetry Choice / Legendary Voices (Robert Donat; Richard Burton; Michael Redgrave; Dylan Thomas; Flora Robson; John Gielgud; Michael Hordern) ALN 1938; Poetry Classics (various) ALN 1918 and Richard Burton: The Voice in Poetry, ALN 1503. There are also five CDs of Dylan Thomas reading Dylan Thomas and another, Finest Hour - Winston Churchill’s Greatest Speeches with Nostalgic Wartime News Bulletins, ALN 1504.

A wide vista of voices are heard. Some are reading only one or two poems or a single splendid piece of oratory. Groups of poems are recited by Guinness, Burton and Donat. In two cases the poet reads his own words: Laurie Lee and the seven Betjemans. Major lengthy poems are included: Wilde's Ballad of Reading Gaol, read by Frank Duncan, Donat reading Intimations of Immortality and Orson Welles in Donne's No Man is an Island. Poetry is the order of the day with one exception: Welles reading Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. In fact, the disc ends on that sonorous rolling thunder. For music enthusiasts there are links along the way. Good to see Langston Hughes, a Chicago poet, being read by Robeson. He was a poet favoured by composers John Alden Carpenter, John Musto, William Grant Still, Howard Swanson, Kurt Weill, Harry Burleigh, Florence Price and Victoria Bond. Large tracts of Wordsworth's Intimations of Immortality were set by Finzi and Somervell. Ballad of Reading Gaol drew settings from Ibert and Phyllis Tate. The disc starts with The Night Mail to which Britten's music was the backdrop in the famous documentary film (Beale). Rawsthorne provided music for Practical Cats and Finzi set the Dirge from Cymbeline in his Let Us Garlands Bring. Housman's From Far from Eve and Morning has inextricable musical resonances which are down to Vaughan Williams and his cycle On Wenlock Edge. The musical cross-references are legion but the only music to appear is in fact Osian Ellis's slight harp contribution for the Alec Guinness recitations.

So, it's a Scottish actor for Auden's Night Mail familiar from Britten's film music yet it's John Neville, in unaffected English accents, who takes the single Burns poem. John Laurie ("Private Frazer" in Dad's Army) has an occasionally stentorian delivery and adopts a 'tempo' comparable to the typical style for giving forth Masefield's Cargoes "Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack / Butting through the Channel in the mad March days". Laurie Lee has soft poetic tones while Frank Duncan distinguishes himself with a dark chiselled accent. The voice of Guinness, known for his Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars franchise, can be business-like and unadorned - the more effective for all that. He finds a world-weariness for Hardy's Ask me not. The Guinness tracks are good but you must allow for a little loudness distortion in The Female Friend. Allowances must be made for Guinness's extremely stage-precious Excelsior (or "Exelsior" as the track-list has it). Burton's mastery defies the twists and turns of fashion and his acting of the words is well suited to today's sensibilities. His consecutive readings of Marlowe's The Passionate Shepherd and Raleigh's Nymph’s Reply is a nice touch, even taking account of his louche tone at the end of the Raleigh. Betjeman's contributions involve a nicely balanced combination of the forthright, breathlessness and poker-faced dry humour. His delight in 'gels' is also on show, not least in Licorice Fields. The audio for Robert Donat shows its age although it is clear enough. This is an actor who will be recalled from Hitchcock's film of The 39 Steps. Donat's oratory is so relaxed as to be almost casual at times. A few of the poems are introduced by the speaker: Betjeman, Welles and Donat. Orson Welles, recorded close to your ears, is sheer magic and this continues in Welles' re-creation of The Gettysburg Address. It works superbly. I wanted more of him. Paul Robeson, known for his singing and his communist fervour, relishes the nobility of the anti-slavery The Freedom Train.

The liner essay has been re-edited by James Murray and goes into painstaking detail particularly as to the readers. It is packed with surprisingly engaging minutiae.

This is an imaginatively selected anthology and has the virtues of variety of author, speaker and recording technology. Discoveries ready to be made.

Rob Barnett

Track Details

1 W.H. Auden: The Night Mail (John Laurie) [2:13]
2 Laurie Lee: April (Laurie Lee) [1:21]
3 Oscar Wilde: Ballad of Reading Gaol (Frank Duncan) [6:34]
4 Robert Burns: Red, Red Rose (John Neville) [0:46]

Sir Alec Guinness reading: (*with Osian Ellis, harp)
5 e.e. cummings: Sweet Spring [1:05]
6 e.e. cummings: When Faces Called Flowers…. [1:20]
7 e.e. cummings: The Moon Looked into my Window [1:04]
8 Thomas H. Bayly: Ask Me Not For Sportive Lays* [1:04]
9 Cornelius Whur: The Female Friend* [1:52]
10 Thomas H. Bayly: Toujours Le MÍme* [2:08]
11 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: Excelsior* [2:34]

Richard Burton reading:
12 Thomas Hardy: Wessex Heights [2:48]
13 Thomas Hardy: The Voice [0:54]
14 John Clare: Autumn [0:47]
15 Christopher Marlowe: The Passionate Shepherd [0:58]
16 Walter Raleigh: Nymph’s Reply [1:13]
17 Bishop Henry King: from Exequy on his Wife [0:39]
18 William Dunbar: from Lament of the Makers [0:45]
19 Robert Graves: Welsh Incident [2:33]

Sir John Betjeman reading Betjeman:
20 The Church’s Restoration [1:14]
21 Olympic Girl [1:26]
22 Seaside Golf [1:07]
23 Business Women [1:00]
24 Indoor Games near Newbury [2:25]
25 How to get on in Society [0:55]
26 Licorice Fields at Pontefract [1:29]

Robert Donat reading:
27 A.E. Housman: From Far from Eve and Morning [0:42]
28 John Betjeman: Death at Leamington [1:27]
29 Coventry Patmore: The Toys [1:54]
30 T.S. Eliot: Gus, the Theatre Cat [3:09]
31 Yuan Jie: Drunk Song on Stone Fish Lake [1:10]
32 Robert Browning: Ring and the Book (extract) [2:34]
33 William Shakespeare: On her Reign (from Henry VIII) [1:18]
34 William Shakespeare: Dirge for Fidele from Cymbeline - (Fear no more the Heat of the Sun…) [1:31]
35 William Wordsworth: Intimations of Immortality [11:01]

36 John Donne: A Devotion (No Man is an Island) (Orson Welles) [4:10]
37 Langston Hughes: Freedom Train (Paul Robeson) [2:53]
38 Abraham Lincoln: The Gettysburg address (Orson Welles) [2:48]

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