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Eighteenth-Century Shakespearean Songs
April Cantelo (soprano)
English Chamber Orchestra/Raymond Leppard (harpsichord)
rec. 1960, Conway Hall, London ELOQUENCE482 4765 [45:13]
This recording from 1960 was first released on CD in 2016, 400 years after Shakespeare’s death.
Most English songs of the eighteenth century are little heard nowadays, which - given the immense output of that century – is not only astonishing but also a real pity. Names like Handel, J.C. Bach and Haydn inevitably come to mind, overshadowing the plethora of native English composers. With British audiences at least, Thomas Arne and the finale ode from his Masque Alfred - Rule Britannia - will most certainly ring a bell, but the tolling bells in his “Come away, death” (from Twelfth Night) might never before have been encountered by the listener. Yet the history and development of English song are as vivid as the tunes.
Henry Purcell’s death in 1695 marked the end of a great phase of English secular songs. This caesura made it necessary and highly fashionable to import singers and composers from mainland Europe, especially from Italy or those trained in the Italian style. Meantime, the few English composers could not compete, to a large extend because their works dwelled, more often than not, in a bygone era. This is clearly audible in John Weldon’s “Take, o take those lips away”; not only had he received his lessons from Henry Purcell, but retained much of his master’s style. Soon, however, a new desire for original British music, set to English texts by native composers, emerged: into this void stepped Thomas Arne. As music director in London’s vast theatre landscape he was already well acquainted with setting Shakespeare’s plays to music, having become resident composer at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in 1745. He was the first to introduce songs to the garden’s programmes and created his own, new English style, by mixing elements from traditional (folk)songs, ballads and opera (e.g. Italianate coloratura) in his compositions thus creating an artificial simplicity of airy melodies that differed hugely in style from Purcell’s. This new approach continued to influence generations of English composers and had a big impact on both vocal compositions of the second half of the 18th century and the taste of the English audience. In the attempt to re-invent England’s long vocal music tradition, which dated back to “Sumer is i cumen in” and probably beyond, it is no wonder that Shakespeare was the composer’s first choice for creating a new, innate form of quintessentially English song.
The tunefulness and the richness of the songs on this disc are extraordinary and even fall a little unexpectedly on the untrained ear. They offer a gateway into the world of 18th century English songs that goes beyond James Hook’s “Lass of Richmond Hill” (partly because this piece is not set to Shakespeare’s words and cannot be found on this disc.) One of my discoveries in this compilation must surely be Thomas Linley Jr, of whom I had never heard before: an very gifted young composer of whom Mozart said, after the former had tragically perished at the age of 22, “Linley was a true genius”. On a different note, indeed a whole score, the easy tunefulness of Thomas Chilcot’s “Hark, hark the Lark” has stayed with me for the last couple of weeks and is one of these catchy tunes that do not make a nuisance of themselves.
The CD comprises thirteen titles by eight mostly little-known British composers and one by Haydn (whose setting of “She never told her love” has, unsurprisingly, been recorded more often than the other pieces.) Despite its mere 45 minutes playing time, the disc is a little treasure trove and gives the listener an idea of how many neglected compositions must still await his or her discovery. It would have been nice, though, had the four-page notes (which are written in English only), provided a more detailed picture of the pieces, composers and the original recording. Only the names of the director Raymond Leppard, a baroque specialist who studied at Cambridge University and presides over the harpsichord in this recording, and the English soprano April Cantelo (originally married to Colin Davis, who had been conductor of the ECO like Leppard – hence the Cantelo-Leppard connection in this recording) are given and we do not learn anything about them or the orchestra, which, at the time of the recording, had just become the English Chamber Orchestra. However, in comparison with other recordings (which are few and far between), this disc has unbeatable merits with its clear yet colourful sound and the quality of the remastered recording. This allows one to overlook minor disappointments, one of which is the misspelling of
Chilcot as “Chilcott” on the cover.
Cantelo’s voice, described by Grove as “pure, clear lyrical soprano, not large, but capable of flexibility and variety of expression”, fits perfectly into this somewhat intimate yet open environment of English song, and interacts harmoniously with the harpsichord, never overshadowing it. Indeed, the lack of good recordings, prompted the uploading of the 1961 LP onto Youtube in an attempt to make music that probably “will never be republished on CD” available to a broader audience; it is good to see that this CD has proven that statement wrong.
It must be hoped that the current perceptible increase in interest in little known baroque music will eventually spark and further explorations of eighteenth century English song. Further first releases on CD with new recordings on period instruments and, in some cases, perhaps newly edited scores, would be a most desirable outcome. Maybe this CD can be the first step in establishing the legacy of the Vauxhall Gardens, providing a viable platform for English music by making it available to a broader audience.
Weldon: Take, o take those lips away [2:35]
Chilcot: Hark, hark the lark [2:59]
Smith: Flower of this purple dye [1:25]
Arne: Come away, death [5:06]
Hook: The Willow Song [3:17]
Arne: Blow, blow thou winter wind [1:33]
Arne: Under the Greenwood Tree [2:20]
Linley: Now the hungry lion roars [1:58]
Smith: Sigh no more, ladies [4:39]
Smith: You spotted snakes [2:21]
Linley Jr: O bid your faithful Ariel fly [4:51]
Haydn: She never told her love [4:25]
Greene: Orpheus with his lute [3:09]
Arne: Thou softly flowing Avon [3:30]
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