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Arthur BENJAMIN (1893–1960) Edgar BAINTON (1880–1956) Songs
Susan Bickley (mezzo-soprano) Christopher Gillett (tenor) Wendy Hiscocks
rec. 2017, Cooper Hall, Selwood Manor, Frome, UK NAXOS 8.571377 [80:16]
The vicissitudes of opportunities and career, and what some now call "life-choices", drove these two composers from their country of birth to other lands. Benjamin, an Australian, made his career in the UK with forays further afield to Vancouver while Bainton moved from the UK to Australia to pursue his career in musical life in Sydney. Benjamin's emigration came in 1923 while Bainton moved in 1934. Each made for himself a position of eminence in the music-academic world. Benjamin developed a particular appetite for writing operas and film music while Bainton tended to lean towards the orchestral concert hall. Each takes a place in the British musical renaissance. Bainton was outside the UK for 22 years and his was a distinctive voice and an English one as much as Eugene Goossens while in Australia, Healy Willan in Canada and Erik Chisholm in South Africa.
To the extent that they are discussed at all, neither composer is associated with British song. Benjamin's best-known piece is Jamaican Rumba (in various configurations but most prominently, piano duet) and Bainton's is the liturgical anthem And I saw a new Heaven. Songs are a little mined part of their list of works. Naxos, on this disc, have organised things sensibly with 19 Benjamin songs grouped together followed by 23 Bainton songs. The CD is properly crammed to over-brimming. These very approachable songs, worthy to share recital company with those of Warlock, Bax, Gurney, Ireland, Moeran, Finzi, Blyton and Geoffrey Bush are split between the two singers. The tracks are randomly mixed between Bickley and Gillett. Bainton has a few more harmonically swashbuckling songs than Benjamin. Notable in this respect are Benjamin's Shepherd's Holiday with its bell-tolled accompaniment and adventurous harmonies. It's an impressive song in anyone's book. The whole recital goes to show that both Bainton and Benjamin need to be taken into the equation when assessing the legacy of British song.
Benjamin first. The Piper is a song that simply sparkles while Man and Woman, with its stalwart vocal projection sounds as if it was written to a Warlock model. The bright and new-minted To Phyllis, Milking Her Flock is in much the same territory as Head and Gurney. Diaphenia - ecstatically sung - is a poem that is often set. Hey Nonny No! is typical of the Jolly Rutterkin (RVW) type and The Sweet Lovers "ring-a-ding-ding" (Finzi) styles; let's not worry too much about who came first. The song swings along masterfully. Then comes a group of Three Greek Songs, all sung by Gillett. The Flower Girl adopts an imploring stance and ponders in the same direction as Bax's The Market Girl or Finzi's Budmouth Dears. The sultry hypnotic piano line of On Deck is striking while A Wine Jug is a typical bounding, cavorting drinking song. Its ballad nature is in the same field as the wonderful Great things by John Ireland. The Three Impressions, democratically enough, go to Bickley. Hedgerow is a chilly wintry song. Calm Sea and Mist is an exercise in swell-rolling; slow, mesmerising and subdued. Symmetrical good-sense prevails with the buzzing The Wasp as the end-piece for the set.
Then come two Hugh McCrae songs: The Mouse is a lovely and eager miniature. The Moon might almost have been by Michael Head: self-hypnotic and inward. Wind's Work has a Caribbean accent in the piano part, boasts some pleasing melisma and generally contributes a life-enhancing impression. Before Dawn sets de la Mare - a British composer favourite. This seasonal song reminded me of various Howells settings. The Caribbean connection is to the fore in the last three songs, all allocated to Gillett. The Song of the Banana Carriers (Jamaican Folk Song) is spun nobly and along the way touches on Negro Spirituals in the words "tired in the sun" and popularity in "come Mr Tallyman tally me banana". Jan is more of a Creole Christmas carol. Lastly, we come to Linstead Market with its unmistakable Caribbean accent. It’s a song of complexity with a marked skip and a hop. Hiscocks shapes this superbly; a really successful song, this one. Benjamin used the Linstead melody in his Caribbean Dance on Two Folk Songs which was recorded by Martin Jones and Richard MacMahon for Pianissimo (PP11192).
Then we come to songs by Bainton. The first, Shooting Star, is (like the other Jonson setting Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount with its deep bass grounding) a tranced and hypnotic setting. Blunden is another favourite of British composers. The soundworld and general 'signature' of this song has much in common with the eerie Finzi setting of At a Lunar Eclipse by Hardy. To the Children, to words by Longfellow, is harmonically adrift to a degree. It then slips its anchor to veer between serious and music-hall sentimental (Berners). The Joyous Wanderer - an ecstatic walking song - has a really lively piano line. It reminds me of Great Things by John Ireland. Gifts is very inventive and ballad-like; a rhetorical and sturdy song. The Little Waves of Breffny has a beautiful sense of skald narrative. The "great waves of the Atlantic" are magnificently evoked by Hiscocks. Next comes a Joyce setting that would not have been out of place in The Joyce Book (1932) which featured thirteen then contemporary composers (including Moeran, Bax and Antheil) who contributed songs. Strings in the Earth, with its dreamy and starry ways, could easily have been a refugee from The Joyce Book. A Nosegay is a lively and undulating ballad. Roseen-Dhu is clearly part of the Celtic revival, to words by Fiona MacLeod (William Sharp). With its sentimental harper arpeggiation, this is a sweet song superbly crooned. It will be recalled that Bainton was an early collaborator with Boughton at the Glastonbury Festival.
Christina Rossetti can be relied on for affecting lyrics. Bainton turned to her for Young Love Lies Dreaming in which Susan Bickley chimes sweetly. Frolic has the trotting bounce of "A piebald cob in Kensington" by Mary Plumstead; now there's a composer whose reputation would thrive if only we could have a complete CD of her songs. Herrick's A Christmas Carol from 1938 has some Medieval twists to add spice to its hymn-tune contours. Matching the Rossetti setting, Love On My Heart from Heaven Fell (Robert Bridges) is rapturous and nicely short to match the well chosen ideas: a lovely song. A Cradle Song, to words by Padraic Colum, squares up mournfully and without a blush to the setting of the same words by Bax and Gurney. The next three songs to poems by Eva Gore-Booth, John Masefield and Wilfred Gibson are borne out of front-line and home front experience in the Great War. The first makes chilling use of the words "vanished into thin air", "did not stop to say goodbye" and "they went, alas, who knows where." The Bainton selections ends with Seumas O'Sullivan's steady stepping The Twilight People and Gore-Booth's The Triumph of Maeve; all Yeatsian ever-young and secret smiles couched in half-light.
Bainton has had some discs to himself but many have had to be shared with others. In the case of the present disc the sharing is with Arthur Benjamin. The Baintons that have been issued are: tone poems (Yates, Dutton), Symphonies 1 (part) (Bostock, ClassicO) , 2 (Handley, Chandos), 3 (Handley, Dutton), Epithalamion, English Idyll (Handley, Chandos), Concerto-Fantasia (Daniel, Chandos), String Quartet (Locrian, Dutton) and Viola Sonata (Outram, BMS and Bradley, Naxos).
The booklet notes for the Naxos song disc are in English only. The authors are Wendy Hiscocks (Benjamin) and Michael Jones (Bainton). A Hiscocks' Benjamin biography is waiting in the wings - well worth the wait, I am sure. As for Bainton, Michael Jones has arranged for publication of a new edition of Helen Bainton's biography of her father ("Remembered on Waking"). The sung words for the songs on this disc are not reproduced in the booklet nor does there appear to be a site where you can get them.
With the exception of Bainton's The Joyous Wanderer and Gifts these songs all receive premiere recordings.
Thanks are due to the British Music Society which provided generous financial assistance to make this recording happen.
1) The Piper (Seumas O'Sullivan) (1923) - Susan Bickley [1.09]
2) Man and Woman (Peter Anthony Motteux) (1918) - Christopher Gillett [0.46]
3) To Phyllis, Milking Her Flock (William Drummond) (1923) - Susan Bickley [1.05]
4) Diaphenia (Henry Constable) (1924) - Christopher Gillett [2.07]
5) Hey Nonny No! (Henry Constable) (1923) - Christopher Gillett [1.10] Three Greek Songs (Dionysius; Theognis of Megara; Benson, Arthur Christopher) (1934)
6) The Flower Girl - Christopher Gillett [0.59]
7) On Deck - Christopher Gillett [2.18]
8) A Wine Jug - Christopher Gillett [0.54] Three Impressions (William Sharp) (1925)
9) Hedgerow - Susan Bickley [1.06]
10) Calm Sea and Mist - Susan Bickley [2.02]
11) The Wasp - Susan Bickley [0.51]
12) The Mouse (Hugh McCrae) (1923) - Christopher Gillett [0.47]
13) The Moon (Hugh McCrae) (1923) - Christopher Gillett [2.08]
14) Wind's Work (Thomas Sturge Moore) (1935) - Susan Bickley [2.49]
15) Shepherd's Holiday (Elinor Wylie) (1936) - Susan Bickley [2.31]
16) Before Dawn (Walter de la Mare) (1924) - Susan Bickley [2.57]
17) The Song of the Banana Carriers (Jamaican Folk Song) (1957) - Christopher Gillett [3.19]
18) Jan (Creole Melody) (1947) - Christopher Gillett [2.27]
19) Linstead Market (Jamaican Folk Song) (1947) - Christopher Gillett [1.35] BAINTON
20) Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount (Ben Jonson) (1920) - Christopher Gillett [3.03]
21) The Joyous Wanderer (Alice Meynell) (1925) - Christopher Gillett [2.20]
22) Gifts (James Thomson) (1924) - Christopher Gillett [1.40]
23) The Little Waves of Breffny (Eva Gore-Booth) (1927) - Christopher Gillett [1.56]
24) Shooting Star (Edmund Blunden) - Susan Bickley [2.29]
25) Strings in the Earth (James Joyce) - Susan Bickley [1.36]
26) Dawn (Songs of Night and Morning, Op. 31: No. 4) (Gordon Bottomley) (1924) - Susan Bickley [1.32]
27) Laughing Rose (William Henry Davies) (1921) - Christopher Gillett [1.04]
28) Roseen-Dhu (Fiona MacLeod) (1912) - Christopher Gillett [1.50]
29) A Nosegay (John Reynolds) (1929) - Christopher Gillett [2.09]
30) Young Love Lies Dreaming (Christina Rossetti) (1928) - Susan Bickley [2.30]
31) To the Children (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow) (1923) - Susan Bickley [1.59]
32) Lullaby (Fiona MacLeod) (1912) - Susan Bickley [2.20]
33) Frolic (George William Russell) (1920) - Susan Bickley [0.57]
34) A Christmas Carol (Robert Herrick) (1938) - Susan Bickley [2.04]
35) Love On My Heart from Heaven Fell (Robert Seymour Bridges) (1928) - Susan Bickley [1.43]
36) Sanctuaries (Songs of Night and Morning, Op. 31: No. 1) (Gordon Bottomley) (1924) - Susan Bickley [1.44]
37) A Cradle Song (Padraic Colum) (1928) - Christopher Gillett [2.36]
38) They Went Forth (Eva Gore-Booth) (1918) - Christopher Gillett [2.01]
39) Twilight (John Masefield) (1923) - Christopher Gillett [2.07]
40) A Casualty (Wilfred Gibson) (1919) - Christopher Gillett [1.24]
41) The Triumph of Maeve (Eva Gore-Booth) - Susan Bickley [3.17]
42) The Twilight People (Seumas O'Sullivan) - Susan Bickley [2.30]