The Wagon of Life - Songs of Nature, Life and Love in Time and Place
Mark Rowlinson (baritone)
Peter Lawson (piano)
rec. 2003, Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester
DIVERSIONS DDV24168 [79.24]
First things first. When this CD arrived on my doorstep, I did not realise that it was a reissue of Dunelm Records disc (DRD 0220) produced in 2004. It was not until I began to explore the internet for information, that I found three reviews published in that year on MusicWeb International. I wondered what else I could add? Well, I am not going to give a song by song commentary: that has already been done. I will mention several highlights (for me) and make a few general comments.
The CD was devised by the North West Composers’ Association as a celebration of the centenary of the birth of Manchester composer Thomas Pitfield (1903-99). Enthusiasts of this composer will understand that he is grossly neglected in the record catalogues. At present there are only five CDs featuring his music and covering about a dozen works. There are a few other pieces on deleted or compilation discs.
This CD includes only three songs composed by Pitfield, excellent settings of texts written or translated by the composer (and his wife, Alice, in the case of the first). The onomatopoeic ‘The Wagon of Life’, the terse ‘By the Dee at Night’ and the lyrical ‘September Lovers’ are little masterpieces and get the recital off to a great start. I think a CD of Pitfield’s songs is an urgent desideratum for record companies.
The Manchester-based composer Stuart Scott has competently set two superb poems by Pitfield: ‘Alderley’ and ‘Gawsworth’, both culled from the collection Cheshire Poems. Scott is equally effective with his nocturnal setting of Emily Brontė’s ‘Fall, Leaves, Fall’ and his scudding realisation of Amy Lowell’s ‘Night Clouds.’ The only other nod to Thomas Pitfield is the attractive artwork on the CD cover.
John Ramsden Williamson has set many (nearly a hundred) A.E. Housman poems. The three examples: ‘The Recruit’, ‘White in the Moon’ and ‘Think no more, lad’ are powerful examples which sometimes use quite an aggressive piano accompaniment to point up the despair and irony. He is not afraid to use a degree of dissonance. Cleary, Williamson is not in awe of George Butterworth, RVW and the scores of composers who have set Housman in the past 123 years. Nor need he be: his ‘take’ is fresh and demanding.
The two Psalm settings by Sasha Johnson Manning are surprising. For any listener who imagines that these will be dry as dust, po-faced ‘religious’ tropes will be proved wrong. The subject matter of mercy, judgment and praise are explored with imagination, and, in the latter, great vibrancy.
It is good that Divine Art/Dunelm have chosen to include a short song cycle: David Golightly’s Songs of the Cliff. These three numbers are settings of Pennine Poet Steve Hobson. The texts are hung about with a bit of mystical froth (the Assyrian God Hea) but are really a reflection on the ‘fact’ that music is at the heart of nature. One reviewer has suggested that the mood of Holst’s Egdon Heath is often present in these settings. Certainly, these songs are amongst the most challenging in the recital. They explore the world of seabirds in flight, death on the rocks and the inherent comedy of the puffin. The vocal line is wide ranging, often intense and powerful. The text would have been helpful here, for study.
Most of the music on this disc follows a largely traditional path of English song. This lies in a trajectory from John Ireland by way of Gerald Finzi and perhaps as touch of Benjamin Britten. Yet there are several examples of music does seem to push at the boundaries. For example, Stephen Wilkinson’s Andrew Marvell setting, ‘The Garden’, which is like a cross between a Sullivan patter-song and ‘Sprechstimme’ written for Cathy Berberian. Joanna Treasure’s setting of her father’s poem ‘Tango (Do you Remember)’ is a little bit of pastiche that works well: Piazzolla in Preston. Finally, ‘Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal’ (Tennyson) was composed whilst Philip Wood was on holiday in Greece. I am not sure that it reflects the gentle eroticism of the words, nor the sunny skies of the Aegean, but certainly he captures the poet’s mood of twilight and the sadness of Princess Ida.
I do wonder what the current status of the North West Composers’ Association is: I cannot find any up-to-date information on the Internet. Their portal appears to have been closed and their Facebook page is devoid of content.
The CD booklet is well-produced with relevant details about the composers and their music: it was written by Lancashire composer David Ellis. Dates of most of these songs have not been provided. As noted above, the cover design is a delightful wood-cut by Thomas Pitfield himself. I was disappointed to find that the liner notes did not include the texts of the songs. Divine Art have insisted that they are following Dunelm Records’ policy. Clearly, there are copyright issues with several of these poems: Philip Larkin, Louis MacNeice and, I imagine, Kathleen Collier and Steve Hobson. It is implied that most of these texts are readily available on the Internet. I found a few, but certainly not all of them.
Like the three above-mentioned reviewers, I did find that the recital was typically excellent. I agree that some songs seem better suited to powerful bass/baritone Mark Rowlinson’s singing style than others. They explore a considerable tonal range, and sometimes demand that the singer venture into territory where he is less than comfortable. I guess the occasional use of ‘head-voice’ is a case in point. The pianist, Peter Lawson, delivers a consistently satisfying performance.
I was delighted to have a chance to hear this CD. It is a fascinating exploration of ‘English’ songs by several composers who write in an ‘expanded’ traditional, but never pastiche, style. This reissue will be of great interest to all those enthusiasts of song who, like me, missed this disc first time around.
Previous reviews (Dunelm): Jonathan Woolf, Ann Ozorio and David Hackbridge Johnson
Thomas PITFIELD (1903-1999)
The Wagon of Life (Pushkin/Alice and Thomas Pitfield) (1944) [2:08]
By the Dee at Night (Thomas Pitfield) (1964) [2:33]
September Lovers (Thomas Pitfield) (1947) [1:47]
Stuart SCOTT (b. 1949)
Alderley (Thomas Pitfield) (1992) [1:12]
Gawsworth (Thomas Pitfield) (1992) [1:52]
Fall, Leaves, Fall (Emily Bronte) (1982) [2:40]
Night Clouds (Amy Lowell) [1:28]
Geoffrey KIMPTON (b. 1927)
Noah (Siegfried Sassoon) [2:41]
Faintheart in a Railway Station (Thomas Hardy) [1:56]
The Poor Man’s Pig (Edmund Blunden) [1:45]
Joanna TREASURE (b. 1961)
Tango (Do you remember?) (Wilfrid Samuel Treasure) [2:09]
I saw the girl (John Clare) [6:29]
John Ramsden WILLIAMSON (1929-2015)
The Recruit (A.E. Housman) [2:57]
White in the Moon (A.E. Housman) [4:06]
Think no More, Lad (A.E. Housman) [1:01]
Stephen WILKINSON (b. 1919)
The Sunlight on the Garden (Louis MacNeice) [2:36]
The Garden (Andrew Marvel) [1:58]
Philip WOOD (b. 1972)
Now sleeps the Crimson Petal (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) [4:42]
Sasha Johnson MANNING (b. 1963)
My Song shall be of Mercy and Judgement (Psalm 101) [3:16]
The Lord is King (Psalm 93) [2:46]
Kevin George BROWN (b. 1959)
Dying Day (Philip Larkin) [4:28]
Description of Spring (Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey [2:20]
David GOLIGHTLY (b. 1948)
Songs of the Clifftop (Steve Hobson) Sea Bird; After the Kill; Puffin. [7:47]
David FORSHAW (b. 1938)
The Owl [2:22]
Whale Song [3:21]
Horse (Kathleen Collier) [4:33]