Those Blue Remembered Hills
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) (1920) [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.
EM RECORDS EMRCD065 [80:52]
In some respects, this CD is a sequel to the disc entitled Heracleitus, which was welcomed by Bob Stevenson back in 2016 (review). Common to both discs are pianist Michael Dussek and The Bridge Quartet, and the connections go deeper still. In the first place, that first disc included Ivor Gurney’s other Housman song cycle, Ludlow and Teme (1920), in which the singer - in that case a tenor - is also joined by a piano quintet. Furthermore, the previous disc included a performance by The Bridge Quartet of an Adagio by Gurney, which is an earlier version of the slow movement of his D minor String Quartet.
The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) is too little known. In fact, it was only last year that I experienced the songs live in concert for the first time (review). It’s a cycle of eight songs setting poems from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and it was composed hard on the heels of the successful launch of Ludlow and Teme. That said, Gurney’s biographer, Michael Hurd established that two of the songs - ‘Loveliest of trees’ and ‘Is my team ploughing?’ – were originally composed as early as 1908 but then revised prior to inclusion in the cycle. In this performance we hear the songs in a recent edition by the composer and Gurney expert, Philip Lancaster.
All eight songs are fine examples of Gurney’s art. ‘Reveille’ gets the cycle off to a strong start; it’s a rousing call to activity and to make the most of life, which Roderick Williams delivers with welcome urgency. The accompaniment is very full with quite a strong piano bass but here the instruments are well balanced, both against each other and with the singer. The accompaniment is more delicate for ‘Loveliest of Trees’, a wistful, lyrical composition which Williams sings with finesse. ‘Golden Friends’ is tender and touching and the song benefits from Williams’ effortless command of legato. Here, there's a much-reduced role for the piano and the members of The Bridge Quartet provide a sensitive backdrop to the vocal line. Gurney then provides valuable contrast in ‘Twice a Week’ where the protagonist attempts to dispel his melancholy through the vigour of sporting activities. We return to introspection for ‘The Aspens’, one of the expressive peaks of the cycle. Here the poet imagines a young couple; after marriage she predeceases her husband and he finds love again, only to die before his new wife. Gentle melancholy suffuses the music. Roderick Williams evidences great care for both the words and the music and the instrumentalists match his refinement. Those familiar with the settings by Vaughan Williams and Butterworth of ‘Is my Team Ploughing’ will immediately spot a different approach by Gurney. There’s no attempt at a ‘two voices’ setting and, furthermore, the music is, for the most part, more robust. Gurney seems to take his cue from the reference to the harness jingling in the first stanza, and his music suggests the trotting of horses. The music ventures into a more inward-looking vein after the fourth stanza (at ‘Is my girl happy?’) but at the penultimate verse the outgoing mood reappears. Perhaps Gurney wished to focus on the thought that life goes on? ‘The Far Country’ inspires Gurney back into introspection. This is the poem in which Housman evokes ‘the land of lost content’; he was speaking of Shropshire but for Gurney that land is surely his native and beloved Gloucestershire. Unsurprisingly, this pensive poem draws moving music from Gurney’s heart and soul. The cycle concludes with ‘March’ which conjures up a variety of images of Spring. In his excellent note on the cycle Philip Lancaster points out that this poem is “almost a summary of the whole”. As such, it forms a very satisfactory rounding off of the cycle, especially since Gurney chooses to end this particular setting with an extended and gently expressive instrumental postlude.
Roderick Williams sings The Western Playland with great understanding and engagement. As ever, his singing gives great pleasure and he puts over the poems – and Gurney’s response to them – most persuasively, guiding the listener through Housman’s imagery. Michael Dussek and The Bridge Quartet are exemplary partners for him.
It was a very good idea to include four songs by Herbert Howells, who formed a friendship with Ivor Gurney when they met as schoolboys in Gloucester; the friendship thus forged lasted for the rest of Gurney’s life. Despite the excellent advocacy which they received on the 1992 Chandos recording of all Howells’ songs (CHAN9185/6), these remain an underappreciated aspect of his output. Roderick Williams gives us engaging accounts of the sprightly Girl’s Song and the rather quirky The Mugger’s Song. I prefer the other two songs, though. There was a Maiden is a gentle, melancholy little song which Williams and Michael Dussek do very well. However, even that song is overshadowed by King David, a masterly setting of Walter de la Mare, with whose poetry Howells had a great affinity. In the booklet, Philip Lancaster reminds us that the composer told Christopher Palmer, “I’m prouder to have written ‘King David’ than almost anything else of mine – de la Mare once said he didn’t want anyone else to set it”. Well, I don’t know if any other composer has ventured a setting, but it would be a brave man or woman who
sought to emulate Howells. He had just reason to be proud, for King David is, in my opinion, one of the truly great English songs. Williams and Dussek do it proud. The song is a gift for a singer with such a command of legato and Williams relates the sorrowful little story beautifully. Dussek brings all the necessary delicacy to the lovely piano part. This is, quite simply, a wonderful performance of a wonderful song. Edward, Edward is a Scots ballad, dramatically set by Gurney. Williams sings it with a wholly convincing Scots accent and Michael Dussek’s delivery of the almost Brahmsian piano part just emphasises the red-blooded drama of the performance.
For Gurney aficionados I imagine that the inclusion of the composer’s D minor String Quartet will be of compelling interest. Though it’s not advertised as such in the documentation, I’ve been able to establish that this is indeed the premiere recording of the work. For all that he’s celebrated as a poet and composer of songs, I knew that Gurney had an absorbing interest in the composition of chamber music. What I didn’t appreciate until reading the comprehensive note about this work by Michael Schofield and Philip Lancaster was that he composed some twenty string quartets, though most of these are now lost. I’ve drawn on their note for background information about the work. The D minor Quartet was composed in 1924, immediately before Gurney wrote a series of three quartets inspired by Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets, Op 59. His friend, Marion Scott, an accomplished violinist herself, organised a quartet to come to the hospital where Gurney was a patient to play through the D minor Quartet to him. As a result of this opportunity to experience the piece in performance, Gurney made extensive revisions to the work. Miss Scott had personally copied out the individual parts from Gurney’s full score and it is the survival of those parts, which Philip Lancaster says were “heavily revised by Gurney, almost to the point of obscurity”, that meant the work survived. I referred earlier to the Heracleitus CD; that included the premiere recording of a single movement, the Adagio. Mr Lancaster prepared an edition of the movement for that recording but now the whole Quartet has been transcribed by Michael Schofield, the violist of The Bridge Quartet. We are told that there are “some slight differences” between the two recorded versions of the Adagio but, in all honesty, even when doing an A/B comparison, I couldn’t detect these when listening in the absence of a score. The only real difference I noted is that the present recording sounds somewhat richer.
The Quartet is cast in four movements. By far the most substantial is the first movement, which here plays for 13:44. Gurney gave no tempo indication but to me it seemed that the speeds chosen intuitively by The Bridge Quartet suit the music to a tee. From the notes I learned that there are two subjects. The first, announced by the first violin almost at once, “has a fresh and energetic melodic profile”. A little later the second subject is introduced by the viola. From these ideas flows a movement which seems to me to be well-organised and well-argued; Gurney’s part-writing displays significant contrapuntal skill. The composer seems entirely comfortable with the string quartet medium and I think he holds this long movement together well. I’m sure that impression is heightened by the confidence and commitment of the players.
The Adagio comes next. This starts solemnly, the viola taking the lead at first. There are, apparently, thematic links with the previous movement, though so far I’m not sufficiently confident in my knowledge of the music to identify these with certainty. In this movement Gurney taps a deep vein of melancholy, and as it unfolds the intensity of feeling increases. Sensitively played by The Bridge Quartet, I think this music has touching eloquence. The third movement, marled Andante con moto, is in a somewhat lighter vein, though as the movement progresses the contrapuntal activity becomes livelier. The finale is marked Molto allegro. Again, there are references back to earlier thematic material. As Gurney gets into his stride, the music is “driven by turbulence and syncopation and….is, at times, propelled almost out of control by the effect of diminishing note-values”. A prime example of that latter characteristic occurs around 3:50. The music has abundant energy and is often densely argued.
Thanks to the splendid advocacy of The Bridge Quartet, the work has made a most auspicious debut on disc. Gurney’s D minor Quartet is an impressive work, especially its first two movements, and I think it’s a significant addition to the British string quartet repertoire. I hope other ensembles will follow in the enterprising footsteps of The Bridge Quartet.
To conclude, Roderick Williams and Michael Dussek give us By a Bierside. I referred earlier to King David as one of the truly great English songs and here’s another one for the pantheon. I don’t know whether it’s a coincidence, but the Heracleitus CD concludes with the same song, but there it’s sung by the tenor Charles Daniels. Although Daniels sings it well and intelligently, I prefer this present performance. For one thing, the lower key adopted by Williams serves the music better, I believe, not least in imparting even more richness to the piano part. Furthermore, Williams gets so much out of the words and he makes superb use of dynamic contrasts, not least the subito piano on the word ‘unknown’ near the end. This is a superb performance. And what a discerning choice of repertoire to end this programme! Not only is By a Bierside among Gurney’s very finest songs, but it seems to me that the third line is so apt and poignant when we consider Ivor Gurney and his art. He altered John Masefield’s words very slightly, perhaps because he was relying on memory. In Gurney’s song the line is ‘Beauty was in that heart and in this eager hand’. How well that describes this sensitive poet and composer.
This is an outstanding disc. It’s also an important release, particularly in bringing us Gurney’s quartet. The performances are consistently superb and engineer Patrick Allen has captured them in very satisfying sound. The booklet, which contains the texts and no less than seven separate essays, all of them perceptive and packed with information, is exemplary.
All lovers of Ivor Gurney’s music should consider this disc an obligatory purchase.