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Sir Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937)
Maud (1898-9) [35.07]
A Shropshire Lad (1904-05) [21.05]
A kingdom by the Sea [3.36]
Shepherd’s Cradle Song [2.35]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Susie Allan (piano)
rec. 2019, Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, UK SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0615 [62.24]
Another exceptionally fine release from SOMM. Arthur Somervell has been reasonably, if patchily served on disc over the years on disc. His output was not huge and most of the key works - with one area a notable exception - have been covered. Hyperion seem to have been the most active with a couple of their "Romantic Concerto" series covering the late violin concerto, the "Normandy Variations" and the "Highland Concerto". An early 1985 Hyperion release also saw the same programme as presented here in well-received performances by David Wilson-Johnson and David Owen Norris. The Housman cycle also appeared as part of the short-lived Collins "English Song" series - latterly on Naxos, and Maud was recorded for Pearl by John Carol Case amongst other versions.
So for a collector options do exist, but on its own merits this new disc is of the very highest order. No surprise that Roderick Williams should give such insightful and sensitive interpretations. He follows in a long line of superb British baritones and he is the equal of the finest. All his characteristic qualities of superb clarity and sensitive word painting are on display alongside his richly resonant voice which suits this style of music so well. He is partnered - "accompanied" seems to imply a rather secondary/lesser role - by Susie Allan. Allan makes the most of Somervell's evocative and atmospheric piano writing which extends far beyond being a simple harmonic support for a vocal line. Indeed, Allan's playing made me realise how dramatically effective Somervell's writing is. Yet, that is the area - stage works or indeed choral works – of Somervell that seems to have been utterly ignored to date on disc. By the measure of these two cycles, my sense is that Somervell the vocal dramatist must be worth re-examining.
The disc opens with Somervell's distillation of Alfred Lord Tennyson's 1855 sequence of twenty eight poems Maud. This was part of a collection which included The Charge of the Light Brigade and was his first publication after having been made poet laureate in 1850. This is Tennyson at the height of his powers and fame and embodying the Victorian taste for slightly heated melodrama. Somervell's notable skill was to condense the somewhat fraught emotional landscape of Tennyson into a coherent and cogent thirty five minute monodrama. The interest from a more detached 21st Century perspective is the slightly "penny-dreadful" nature of Tennyson's text. Hence the first setting, I hate the dreadful hollow does little to spare delicate sensibilities diving in with lines such as; "The red-ribb'd ledges drip with a silent horror of blood....". Somervell instantly sets the dark and glowering mood with a powerfully sombre opening gesture executed to perfection by Susie Allan. Part of the problem that Tennyson creates for composer and performers is that the poems are all set in the first tense of male narrator telling about his infatuated relationship to the eponymous Maud. Williams' great narrative skill is in finding the wide emotional range from rapture to despair to passion to nobility while not over-emoting these potentially sentimental feelings. In this he is supported by Somervell's skilful selection and ordering of the texts leading from the early tragedy of the narrator's father's death through his initial encounter with Maud, onto the killing of Maud's brother in an honour-duel leading to a final redemptive sacrifice for the Motherland where death in battle with allow a reunion with his beloved beyond the grave.
From the perspective of a cynical 21st Century, when read in isolation, it is hard not to find Tennyson's original poems as over-wrought and lacking in nuance and subtlety. Somervell's significant achievement, alongside that of Williams and Allan is to ameliorate that hot-house excess and instead draw the listener into a powerful and effective narrative - without doubt the song settings bring greater depth and humanity to the original verses. A.E. Housman famously hated the idea of any of his texts being set to music, convinced as he was that they were complete and sufficient in themselves. Posterity has judged him wrong with his sixty three poems that comprise A Shropshire Lad amongst the most often set British poems of the last one hundred and twenty years. Indeed, when Somervell made his selection of ten poems for his cycle in 1904, they were just eight years old. For all the most famous settings from Vaughan Williams to Butterworth, Gurney and Moeran, Somervell's cycle was the first. Again, Somervell carefully selected and ordered the verses to create a coherent narrative arc starting with a young innocent man in the first setting When I was young and twenty, then the years of growing awareness of life and mortality - No.4 In Summertime on Bredon and No.8 Think no more lads, laugh be jolly, to the closing prescience of No.10 The lads in their hundreds. The latter took on particular resonance during the carnage of World War I, but of course it should be noted that Housman was referencing the Boer War.
Somervell was never a folk-song influenced composer in the way that the young Vaughan Williams or Butterworth were. His training was a text-book (pun intended) example to young British composers of red-brick university, a sound academic training in Germany (Berlin in this instance) topped off by post-graduate study back in the UK with Parry. Somervell's musical Gods were very much the German models of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. But in this Housman cycle his musical style is markedly different from the earlier drama of Maud. Both melodic lines and their accompaniments are deliberately simpler, with the writing appealingly fluent and tuneful. For sure he does point out a repeated ringing bell in the previously mentioned In Summertime on Bredon but it is integrated in the musical texture rather than overtly seeking to paint a dramatic scene. Again, the performance of Williams and Allan cannot be praised too highly. Once more I find that Williams finds an ideal balance between subtle pointing of the text without ever falling into mannerism or excess. He also manages to convey the essential vigour of youth and the intimations of mortality that these poems contain. As mentioned, the Somervell recital on Collins/Naxos from Graham Johnson and Christopher Maltman contains the complete Housman cycle as well as three excerpts from Maud. Maltman is another very fine singer and of course Johnson is an exemplary accompanist. However, in this instance he must cede to Williams who not only has a more richly resonant voice but whose handling of the text is even more sensitively achieved. Generally Williams favours flowing tempi that somehow seems to chime more effectively with the urgency of doomed youth. That said, the Naxos recital offers the interested collector a wider selection of Somervell's song settings and as such will be a compulsory addition alongside this new disc. At the time of its publication, Housman was criticised for the arch naivety of these seemingly simple texts. Yet that very simplicity has served them better than Tennyson's more convoluted and heated creations.
In addition to the two cycles, Williams and Allan offer a pair of brief single songs; A Kingdom by the Sea and Shepherd's Cradle Song. The former is a setting of Edgar Allan Poe while the disc closes with the gently rapturous cradle song described simply in the liner as "translated from German". Both songs receive delightfully caring and tender renditions which again belie a kind of folksong simplicity. The liner notes that Roderick Williams and Susie Allan have been collaborating for over twenty years and frankly it shows. There is an absolute sense of rightness about this recital that quite disarms any criticism. Allied to that is the technical quality of the production. This is in the very finest tradition of SOMM with the regular team of producer Siva Oke and engineer Paul Arden-Taylor achieving an ideal balance between voice and piano. I am not sure they have used the Menuhin Hall at the Menuhin School previously but it provides an excellent venue with a generous but not overly resonant acoustic. Completing the all-round excellence is a booklet with two valuable essays. First Jeremy Dibble contributes a typically informative and detailed description of the music and the composer. This is complimented by an article from Roderick Williams entitled "Somervell then and now - a singer's perspective". In it Williams offers the listener some fascinating insights into his interpretative understanding of the music which makes for not only a valuable critique into the composer's mindset and choices but also gives the reader a perspective on how a singer of Williams' stature sets about creating an interpretation. Full song texts in English only are also included.
1) I – I hate the dreadful hollow [1.44]
2) II – A voice by the cedar tree [3.59]
3) III -She came to a village church [1.24]
4) IV – O let the solid ground [1.08]
5) V - Birds in the high Hall garden [2.40]
6) VI - Maud has a garden [1.43]
7) VII – Go not, happy day [1.35]
8) VIII – I have led her home [2.35]
9) IX - Come in to the garden, Maud [3.28]
10) X - The fault was mine [3.40]
11) X - Dead, long dead (4.08)
12) XII – O that ’twere possible [1.45]
13) XIII – My life has crept so long [5.12]
14) A kingdom by the Sea [3.36]
A Shropshire Lad
1) I Loveliest of Trees [1.52]
2) II When I was one-and-twenty [1.09]
3) III There pass the careless people [1.25]
4) IV In summertime on Bredon [3.11]
5) V The street sounds to the soldiers’ tread [2.00]
6) VI On the idle hill of summer [2.25]
7) VII White in the moon the long road lies [2.55]
8) VIII Think no more, lad, be jolly [1.43]
9) IX Into my heart an air that kills [1.37]
10) X The lads in their hundreds [2.45]