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Come, Let Us Make Love Deathless
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
Twelve Humbert Wolfe Songs, H174 (1929) [27:05]
The heart worships (1908) [2:55]
I lay these lilies, H174a (1929, completed 2018) [2:44]
Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Annabel Lee, Op. 41b (1905) [9:33]
I came at morn, Op. 13/7 (1907) [1:49]
Homeland, Op. 74/4 (1926) [2:51]
Come, let us make love deathless, Op. 29/1 (1908) [4:35]
Killary, Op. 54/2 (1909) [5:06]
To Dianeme, Op. 24/4 (1913) [2:15]
Golden daffodils, Op. 14/3 (1905) [3:29]
A farewell, Op. 30/5 (1906) [4:12]
Gold, Op. 97/2 (1930) [2:35]
In an almond tree, Op. 97/3 (1930) [2:51]
The requital, Op. 29/5 (1910) [4:05]
James Geer (tenor)
Ronald Woodley (piano)
rec. 2018, Bradshaw Hall, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

Holst’s only mature song cycle, setting twelve poems by Humbert Wolfe, was effectively dismembered by his publishers from the start when they insisted on issuing each of the songs separately. Mind you, one can see their point; the songs themselves span a very wide variety of texts and styles, and hardly seem to form a unit in any meaningful sense. Colin Matthews extracted ten of the songs and orchestrated them as a song cycle The Dream City, which was recorded on Hyperion but appears to have vanished from current catalogues (Amazon lists new copies at inflated prices).

Be that as it may, there have been only two recordings which have given us all the songs in their context. Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten made one for Argo in 1968 but it is now only available as part of a 27-disc box of all their Decca recordings. Philip Langridge and Steuart Bedford made another recording for Collins in 1998, subsequently issued by Naxos in Volume 6 of their English Song series. The latter comes conveniently as part of a complete survey of all Holst’s songs, including a number not available elsewhere on disc, but this new issue has other reasons to earn a recommendation.

In the first place, the recording finds room for another Wolfe song, previously unpublished and only available now as a result of editorial work by Colin Matthews, who has supplied the final bars which Holst left unfinished. The setting of I lay these lilies makes an effective conclusion to the group of Holst songs on the disc, and it is unclear why the composer excluded it from his cycle. The newly completed song is separated off from the other Wolfe settings by a performance of Holst’s much earlier The heart worships. That is much more in the style of a conventional English lyric but nevertheless has occasional moments when the fingerprints of the mature Holst may be detected.

In the second place, the scores have been newly edited to amend some of Holst’s dynamic markings which may have been altered by a third hand. I have to say that the alterations are hard to distinguish, merely such as might in an event be supplied by performers as part of the usual matter of interpretation. But the fact that the pianist Ronald Woodley, who also contributes a lengthy and informative booklet note, has undertaken the preparation of a new edition of these songs is an indication of how sensitively the performance has been prepared.

Finally, there is the matter of those performers themselves. It would probably be fair to describe both of the previous exponents on disc, Pears and Langridge, as having individual styles of voices. Both are also given quite a forward placement in the balance with the piano, which does no real favours to the real contributions of Britten and Bedford. Neither also really manages the sense of other-wordly mystery which is required for what is undeniably the greatest of these songs, Betelgeuse. Both bring superb diction and clarity of placement to such lines as “the gold leaves hang in golden aisles for twice a hundred million miles”, but at the same time the wide-spaced piano chords which provide such an unearthly background are eclipsed behind the voice. On this disc, given a more forward placement for the piano and James Geer’s more delicate singing tone, the balance gives the sense of music which moves forward from the end of Neptune into the coldness of interstellar space. In short, this is a highly recommendable recording of these neglected songs. Only the fact that the coupling on Naxos with Holst’s other songs is more appropriate would prevent me from recommending this new performance over either of its rivals. By the way, Geer’s clarity of delivery of both words and music is superb.

And then there is an additional consideration. The coupling of a whole series of songs by Joseph Holbrooke, all of them world première recordings, would be enough of an incentive not only for collectors of English song but also for the seemingly growing band of enthusiasts of the music of this neglected English master. At least, I would assume the number of enthusiasts is on the increase, given the growing profile which his works have been assuming in the record catalogues over the last twenty years or so. There are now quite a raft of recordings of his orchestral and chamber music. So far, however, his many choral scores are only to be heard in online transcriptions of broadcast performances, and of his operas (including the Cauldron of Annwn cycle based on the Welsh myths of the Mabinogion) we have but fragmentary excerpts. Hopefully the appetite for the music will continue to grow until we can get a full conspectus of a composer whose sense of self-importance may eventually prove to have some justification in fact.

These songs are not masterpieces, but they are good of their kind, and several are more than that. The most interesting is the lengthy ballad Annabel Lee. Its narrative, based on a rambling poem by Edgar Allen Poe, is matched with suitably descriptive music which cries out for orchestral treatment. Holbrooke had a long fascination with Poe’s writings; this song forms part of a cycle of its own, which includes a number of symphonic poems and the choral setting of the better-known The Raven (which can be heard in a broadcast relay online). Holbrooke’s writing for the voice and piano in Annabel Lee is highly ambitious, apparently demanding the services of a Wagnerian heldentenor at one moment and the ferocious attack of a Liszt or Rachmaninov on the keyboard at another. The other songs are all much shorter, but there are some beautiful gems here. Let me name a delicate setting of Golden daffodils to a poem probably written by the composer himself under a pseudonym, and two quite dramatic poems by Herbert Trench in the shape of Come, let us make love deathless and the ballad-like Killary.

The recorded balance is excellent throughout this recital. Apart from twelve pages of informative notes on the music by the pianist, we are given biographies of the composers by Em Marshall-Luck and the complete texts of all the sung poems – a sizeable booklet of forty pages. Lovers of English song will want to acquire the Holbrooke settings for their own sake, and they will be rewarded also with a very personable performance of the Holst cycle.
Paul Corfield Godfrey