Sir Hubert PARRY (1848-1918)
Twelve Sets of English Lyrics Vol III
Sarah Fox (soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Andrew West (piano)
rec. 2016/17, Turner Sims, University of Southampton, UK
SOMM CÉLESTE SOMMCD272 [58:46]
I’ve already greatly enjoyed the first two releases in SOMM’s complete edition of Parry’s English Lyrics, in the process getting to know some songs previously unheard (Vol 1 ~ Vol 2). Roderick Williams and pianist Andrew West have been constants throughout the venture and Sarah Fox, who featured in Vol 2, returns for this final release which, pleasingly, has arrived just as the Parry centenary year is drawing to a close.
The English Lyrics comprise 74 songs in total, divided into 12 sets, the last two of which were published posthumously. Parry ranged widely in his selection of poets to set but no less than nine of the Lyrics were settings of poems by Julian Sturgis (1848-1904), all of which are included here. Sturgis became a friend of Parry when they were schoolboys together at Eton. It is perhaps significant, therefore, that one of the poems that Parry chose to set is Through the Ivory Gate, which is all about recollected friendship. There’s no doubting the sincerity of Parry’s response to the words and Roderick Williams sings the song eloquently. Immediately before that is placed The sound of hidden music, the words to which are by Julia Chatterton. The poem speaks not only of “hidden music” but also of “the echo of departing steps” and “those we cannot see”. This may well have been Parry’s final song – Jeremy Dibble tells us that the manuscript is dated 27 February, 1918, Parry’s 70th birthday. Prof Dibble mentions that Parry had confided to Herbert Howells that he did not expect to live beyond that age (a prediction which proved correct); maybe, therefore, the choice of text reflected Parry’s sense of his own mortality. However, it occurred to me as I listened to Sarah Fox’s excellent account of this touching and introspective song that another factor may have influenced Parry. Might he have been thinking not just of his own mortality but also of the mortality of former Royal College of Music pupils cut down in World War I?
Miss Fox opens the programme with My heart is like a singing bird which is one of Parry’s most celebrated songs – and justly so. Jeremy Dibble dubs it a “highly effusive” song and Sarah Fox responds to the music with ardent singing. To her falls another of the composer’s best songs, From a city window. She sings this marvelously, especially the pensive central section. Elsewhere I like Sarah Fox’s account of A moment of farewell in which both the rippling piano part and the airborne vocal line convey the imagery of a bird in flight. She’s excellent, too, in When lovers meet again. The words are by the American, Langdon Elwyn Mitchell (1852-1935) who also furnished the text for From a city window. When lovers meet again is an optimistic, outgoing song and Miss Fox’s delivery of it is suitably bright and eager. She tells the story of A stray nymph of Dian charmingly and does what she can with A girl to her glass which, for my taste, has too much of the Victorian parlour about it.
Jeremy Dibble makes a strong case that Parry may have been drawn to some poems because they reflected his sorrow at the fact that his wife Maude had, over the years, become more distant in her affection for him – though Parry remained devoted to her – and also was unappreciative of his music and musical achievements. If Prof Dibble’s theory is correct – and it seems pretty persuasive to me – then The Faithful Lover seems almost explicit in this regard. The poem is poignant and so is Parry’s musical response. Roderick Williams captures the essence of the song. Two other “Maude songs” may well be Looking backward and She is my love beyond all thought. The former is suffused with regret and pain, the latter is touching. Both are allotted to Roderick Williams who sings them eloquently.
Perhaps the most extraordinary song in this particular collection is Nightfall in Winter, another setting of a Langdon Elwyn Mitchell poem. Parry’s music is slow and spare in texture and it brings to life Mitchell’s evocation of a chilly night scene in a most atmospheric fashion. The song demands a singer with a terrific control of line so Roderick Williams is ideally cast. He sings the song wonderfully, supported by icy accompaniment by Andrew West. Together they convince me that this song, previously unknown to me, is a fine one which should be more widely heard. At the other end of the spectrum Williams offers a light and nimble performance of The Blackbird and he brings the recital – and SOMM’s series - to an ebullient conclusion with Grapes, perhaps the nearest Parry came to a drinking song.
Throughout this album both singers are on top form, showing great care for the words as well as for the music. Andrew West plays the piano parts, as he has done throughout the series, with flair and imagination. The recordings have been excellently engineered by Paul Arden-Taylor. The documentation, anchored by an authoritative essay about the music by Jeremy Dibble, is comprehensive. I noticed just one slip. The booklet confusingly designates two songs as Set XI, number 1 but I’m sure Jeremy Dibble’s note is correct in assigning My Heart is like a Singing Bird to Set X.
Though I’ve heard some of Parry’s English Lyrics on disc before – and sometimes in recital – there have been many discoveries for me in SOMM’s complete survey – the first of its kind, I believe. These three CDs have made it clear that Parry’s songs, like so much of his music, is unjustly neglected. In his centenary year SOMM have done a singular service by making his complete English Lyrics available and in consistently fine performances.
My heart is like a singing bird
If I might ride on puissant wing
A moment of farewell
The sound of hidden music
Through the Ivory Gate
Nightfall in Winter
When the dew is falling
Thine eyes still shined for me
When lovers meet again
A Lover’s garland
The Faithful Lover
A stray nymph of Dian
A girl to her glass
When the Sun’s Great Orb
One golden thread
At the hour the long day ends
She is my love beyond all thought
From a city window
The Spirit of the Spring
The child and the twilight