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The Soldier - From Severn to Somme
Christopher Maltman (baritone), Joseph Middleton (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Westleton, UK
Texts & English translations included

I was thrilled when I saw the announcement of the release of this disc because back in 2014 I heard Christopher Maltman sing this self-same programme at the Chipping Camden Music Festival (review). On that occasion his pianist was Julius Drake and I remember that the recital was a memorable experience. Now, joined by Joseph Middleton, Christopher Maltman has committed the programme to CD. I have deliberately refrained from looking to see what I wrote about that live performance, preferring to approach the recording afresh.

During the period 2014-18, when the centenary of World War I was commemorated, there were many recitals and concerts that featured music, new and old, related to or inspired by that conflict. Some were more successful than others. This one, as I recall, struck me at the time as a conspicuous success. At the time that I reviewed the 2014 recital, though, I don’t believe I knew that Maltman’s programme had not been devised specifically to mark the Great War centenary. In fact, as he reveals in a booklet note accompanying this CD, the programme originated back in his student days at the Royal Academy of Music when he built a short competition programme around the songs of Ivor Gurney under the title From Severn to Somme. It was Malcolm Martineau who suggested expanding that programme into a wider selection of soldier-themed songs for Maltman’s New York recital debut in 2000. The programme was further refined and expanded through the addition of the Butterworth songs and other items in 2013. The result is a programme that portrays the concept of what Maltman refers to as ‘Jedersoldat’.

The programme is divided into four sections, starting with ‘Home’. All but one of George Butterworth’s ‘Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad’ are included and ‘Loveliest of Trees’ is a wonderfully evocative opener to the programme. Maltman’s voice is evenly and firmly produced, as will be the case throughout the disc, and his singing is acutely expressive as he sings this nostalgic music. Gurney makes an early appearance too. His Black Stichel is a concise song in which he contrives to portray in a different fashion the wind as it blows from each of the four main points of the compass. Arthur Somervell probably gets insufficient credit for being the trailblazer when it came to song cycles by English composers. His ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’ is one of four that Maltman has selected from the 10 songs that comprise Somervell’s cycle A Shropshire Lad. The writing betrays, I think, the influence of Schumann, though it’s none the worse for that. Christopher Maltman sings it with great artistry and I particularly admired his sensitive delivery of the third of the song’s four stanzas. It’s back to Butterworth and his response to A Shropshire Lad in ‘Look Not Into My Eyes’, which receives a well-nuanced performance. Whether by deliberate design or not, the programme includes not just British songs but also music from all the principal combatant nations of the Great War: Austria, Germany, France, Russia and the USA. The first non-British composer is Mahler and one of his military songs, Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen. This song has a quasi-orchestral piano part (the song was later orchestrated) and Joseph Middleton conjures up marvellously all the colours in the music, Maltman sings the song superbly; he really draws you in to the story and deploys a wide range of tone and colour to bring the setting to life. This is a tragic song which here receives a compelling performance.

The next section, ‘Journey’ opens with Fauré’s sombre Les Berceaux. Maltman shows an enviable command of a smooth line from which the climax in verse two grows with a sense of inevitability. Charles Ives’ He is There! is an interesting choice. Richard Stokes tells us in his invaluable notes that this was one of three war songs that Ives composed when the USA entered the War in 1917; he revised it in 1942, shortly after his country was drawn into the next global conflict. It’s an exuberant, patriotic song on the surface and it may be no more than that, though I can’t help wondering – though with no evidence on which to base the supposition – if there was a touch of irony below the surface. Ives incorporated snatches of familiar patriotic songs into his composition. Maltman, lustily supported by Middleton, enters right into the spirit and gives a flamboyant account of the song. Skilful programme construction then offers a fine and much-needed contrast in the shape of Somervell’s ‘White in the Moon’. This is a tenderly melancholic song, beautifully done here. Gurney’s Severn Meadows is on a completely different level, though. This is a very rare example of Gurney setting his own words. Words and music are unbearably poignant, especially in a performance of this calibre. This group ends, like the first, with Mahler. Like the previous Mahler song, Revelge has a piano part of orchestral dimensions and Joseph Middleton does wonders with it, especially in the passage after verse five. Maltman tugs at the listener’s heart strings as he tells of the wounded, doomed drummer boy and voices his bravado. It’s a gripping performance by these artists.

The third section is ‘Battle’ and we’re plunged right in with Mussorgsky’s ‘The Field-Marshall’. The opening of the song is a turbulent depiction of battle and here again Middleton is faced with a quasi-orchestral piano part which he dispatches excitingly. Maltman offers a towering interpretation of the song, especially in the second part where Death surveys the battle field and comes to claim the casualties. He evokes the dread majesty of Death, nowhere more grippingly than at ‘The fight is ended! I have conquered all!’ (The song is performed in Russian.) This is one of the highlights of the recital. Once again, intelligent, contrasting programme planning is in evidence and this time it’s supplied by Gurney and his In Flanders. The words that Gurney set were by his boyhood – and lifelong - friend, F W ‘Will’ Harvey. It’s always struck me as a profoundly moving song; both young men were at the front in France, though not stationed together, and pining for their native Gloucestershire. Perhaps on this occasion the song made an even greater impact on me because it’s only a matter of days since I finished reading the fine biography of Harvey by Anthony Boden, F W Harvey. Soldier, Poet (1988, rev 2011). Gurney’s musical response to his friend’s evocation from afar of Gloucestershire is deeply poignant and that quality is truly realised by Maltman and Middleton. Five of Butterworth’s six A Shropshire Lad songs are included in this recital. The missing one is ‘Think no More Lad’. Presumably to give Somervell a fair crack of the whip, his setting is preferred. Personally, I regret that because Somervell’s setting isn’t as good as Butterworth’s music of faux-jollity. Nonetheless, Somervell’s song is worth hearing. Three German songs conclude the group. Schumann’s Die beiden Grenadiere is a Heine setting, telling of the obsessive patriotism of two French prisoners of war returning home after the Napoleonic wars. Along the way, they choose to die for their Emperor rather than take the easy option and return to their loved ones. ‘Der Soldat’ is a setting of Hans Christian Andersen but there’s nothing fairy-tale about this. It’s the story of a soldier facing the firing squad. Maltman and Middleton give a performance that establishes a very direct line through to those bitter military songs of Mahler. It’s a grim story, powerfully related. In between the two Schumann songs comes Wolf’s ‘Die Tambour’ and here again the Mahler association is inescapable.

The final group is entitled ‘Epitaph’. We begin with Finzi’s Channel Firing. This Hardy setting is bleak and dark and it’s also superb. Finzi composed it in 1940 and I learned from the notes that Hardy wrote the poem in 1914. So, here we have words penned near the start of World War I and set to music not long after the outbreak of World War II. Maltman and Middleton distil a potent atmosphere at the start and build the tension from there. Their performance is full of drama and also of nuances understandingly put across. If I hadn’t thought it was a great song before hearing this disc then I certainly would have done so after experiencing this performance. Somervell’s ‘Into my Heart an air that kills’ is shrewdly placed after that big Finzi piece; the tender melancholy of words and music is a perfect foil. Then we hear Butterworth’s last three contributions to the recital. In the deceptively simple ‘When I was one and twenty’, I love the way Maltman uses subtle rhythmic freedom to make the most of the words. In ‘The lads in their hundreds’ the seemingly innocent lilt of the music may lull an unsuspecting listener into a false sense of security, especially when the vocal delivery is as light and easy as here. But then the last couplet, ‘They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man, / The lads that will die in their glory and never be old’ is devastating, not least because it’s all so understated in Butterworth’s setting. Last comes what Richard Stokes so rightly describes as the “heartrending dialogue” that is ‘Is my team Ploughing?’ Maltman voices the words of the dead young man in a frail, distant fashion that is completely convincing. Equally convincing is his delivery of the surviving friend’s responses; bluff and hearty at first but increasingly uncomfortable as the dialogue reaches its denouement. The last word, so far as the formal programme is concerned, is given to Poulenc. ‘Lune d’Avril’ is an exquisite song, much of it subdued in tone, and its inclusion seems so right when we get to the line ‘On a brisé tous les fusils’ (All the guns have been destroyed). If only.

All that remains is the encore. John Ireland’s ‘In Boyhood’ is a discerning and perceptive choice on so many levels. For one thing, it’s a lovely song and it’s sensitively performed here. In addition, it’s another Housman setting, so it chimes with so many of the other items in this programme. But it’s not from A Shropshire Lad. Instead it’s from Housman’s collection entitled Last Poems and in this poem he is mourning friend he lost in the 1914-18 conflict. It makes an apt and touching conclusion to this recital.

As I said at the outset, I’ve made a point of not looking back at my comments about the 2014 live performance I attended, though I clearly recall being very impressed indeed. However, hearing the programme on disc with the opportunity to listen more reflectively has made me appreciate this recital all the more. The construction of the programme seems to me to be uncommonly thoughtful. Not only is the selectin of music wide-ranging and discerning. Consider also, for example, the occasions on which a big, dramatic song is followed by something more reflective. Basic programme planning, you may think, and in a way it is. But to do it so perceptively, especially when working within the discipline of a themed programme, takes some doing. Again, the juxtaposition of those two military songs by Schumann with the much later compositions by Mahler offers an opportunity for the listener to reflect on questions of musical lineage. It’s rewarding, too, to experience different responses to Housman. The imaginative construction of the programme is the reason that I’ve felt it right to comment briefly on each item. In short, this is one of the most compelling art song programmes that I can recall hearing. It’s a cause for celebration that it has been preserved on disc.

I don’t think I need say much more about the performances per se. As you’ll have gathered from my comments as I’ve gone along, Christopher Maltman’s singing is of the highest calibre and intelligence throughout and in Joseph Middleton he has the perfect partner. Jens Braun was the engineer responsible for the recordings. He’s done an expert job. Richard Stokes’ notes are predictably excellent and Signum provide all the texts and translations, though you’ll scarcely need to refer to them since Maltman’s diction is crystal clear at all times.

This an outstanding release, rewarding in every way.

John Quinn

George Butterworth – Loveliest of Trees from Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1911)
Ivor Gurney – Black Stichel (1920)
Arthur Somervell – On the Idle Hill of Summer from A Shropshire Lad (1904)
George Butterworth – Look Not Into My Eyes (1911)
Gustav Mahler – Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen (1898)

Gabriel Fauré – Les Berceaux Op 23/1 (1883)
Charles Ives - He is There! (1917)
Arthur Somervell – White in the Moon (1904)
Ivor Gurney – Severn Meadows (1917)
Gustav Mahler – Revelge (1899)

Modest Mussorgsky – The Field-Marshall (1877) from Songs and Dances of Death
Ivor Gurney – In Flanders (1917)
Arthur Somervell – Think no More Lad (1904)
Robert Schumann – Die beiden Grenadiere Op 49/1 (1840)
Hugo Wolf - Die Tambour from Möricke-Lieder (1888)
Robert Schumann – Der Soldat from Fünf Lieder, Op 40 (1840)

Gerald Finzi – Channel Firing (1940) from Before and after Summer, Op 16
Arthur Somervell – Into my Heart an air that kills (1904)
George Butterworth – When I was one and twenty (1911)
George Butterworth – The lads in their hundreds (1911)
George Butterworth – Is my team Ploughing? (1911)
Francis Poulenc – Lune d’Avril from La Courte Paille (1960)

John Ireland – In Boyhood from We’ll to the Woods no More (1928)

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