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Those Blue Remembered Hills
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) (1920, ed. Philip Lancaster) [25:44]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
There was a Maiden Op 22 No 1 (1915) [2:31]
Girl’s Song, Op 22 No 4 (1916) [1:24]
King David (1919) [4:24]
The Mugger’s Song [1919) [1:44]
Edward, Edward (1914) [4:54]
String Quartet in D minor (1924-25) [35:56]
By a Bierside (1916) [4:15]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Michael Dussek (piano)
The Bridge Quartet
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK.
Texts included

Anyone who has ever heard Stephen Varcoe with the Delme String Quartet and Ian Burnside on their wonderful disc of Housman settings on their Hyperion disc (CDA66385) might well be wondering how this disc can claim to present a premiere recording of Gurney’s The Western Playland. The answer is simple: between the early success of the song cycle and its publication by the Carnegie Trust in 1925, Gurney revised the score, a revision that was to affect every one of the eight songs and which made the work more dramatic; however, the printed score was full of errors which, due to the composers growing ill health, went uncorrected, so in 2013 Philip Lancaster, whose excellent notes adorn the booklet, undertook the task of correcting the score so that it was more in line with Gurney’s manuscript and his intentions. The work has always suffered from an unfair reception in comparison to his other Housman cycle, Ludlow and Teme, and it is hoped that the revisions in this new edition of the score will elevate The Western Playland to its rightful place in Gurney’s musical legacy. The result certainly sounds more fluent, so that it is easier for the listener to appreciate how Gurney’s song cycle is a real synthesis between words and music.

Roderick Williams has a rich baritone voice which intones the drama of this song cycle extremely well; he is very convincing in 'Loveliest of Trees', which is one of my favourites among all Housman's poems. His rendition of 'Is my Team Ploughing', which is very different to the setting  by Vaughan Williams, is quite wonderful, especially in the way he conveys the sense of loss, something which he carries over well into 'The Far Country'. The final song in the cycle, 'March', differs from either On Wenlock Edge or Ludlow and Teme, the other two cycles based on Housman’s poetry scored for singer, piano and string quartet, in that Gurney adds an instrumental coda which sums up the work by taking musical themes from across the cycle to provide a calm sense of conclusion.

Williams is also excellent in the two separate songs by Gurney, even adding a convincing accent to the border balled Edward, Edward, whilst By a Bierside is here given such a sensitive reading that it forms a fitting conclusion to the disc. He is equally as convincing in the four Herbert Howells songs, a forgotten but rewarding aspect of his output. I must say, though, that I do prefer his masterful song, King David sung by a woman, which is especially so of Janet Baker’s and Martin Isepp’s recital; I have the original Saga release on CD although it now on a Heritage release (HTGCD290-1). The way she sings the line “A nightingale hidden in a cypress tree, jargoned on and on” makes her version stand out from the four others I have.

The Bridge Quartet return for a premiere recording of Ivor Gurney’s String Quartet in D minor, just one of about twenty string quartets he is known to have composed, although many of these are now lost. This Quartet has a special significance, in that it is mentioned in Gurney’s poem Masterpiece. It is a fine example of the English idiom, a strongly melodic work, its four movements being somewhat reminiscent of Vaughan Williams. It was composed in late 1924 and early 1925, when Gurney was “incarcerated in mental hospitals, a time when he was quite productive, especially of chamber music.” It is a really lovely, interesting work which here receives a fitting world premiere performance by the Bridge Quartet. Their performance is very atmospheric, and this disc is noteworthy and recommendable purely on the basis of this Quartet alone.

All the performances here are very good; Michael Dussek is the only performer I have so far failed to mention and he is at his usual, imperious best, his contribution as significant as those of the other performers. The recorded sound is excellent, Potton Hall proving once again to have a pleasantly warm acoustic for chamber and vocal music. Philip Lancaster’s booklet essay is, as already stated, is highly informative, especially when he is discussing his new edition of The Western Playland. This disc will appeal not just to those Anglophiles amongst our readers, and many will want this disc for just the Quartet alone.

Stuart Sillitoe

Previous review: John Quinn

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