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Severn & Somme
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Susie Allan (piano)
rec. 2005, Potton Hall, UK
Texts included

Recently, when I was researching background for my interview with the pianist Susie Allan, I discovered somewhat to my surprise that we don’t seem to have reviewed this disc, which I believe was the first that she and Roderick Williams made together. How can this collection of English songs, which I bought when it first came out, have eluded us? Well, on the basis of better late than never, it’s high time to draw the attention of collectors of English song recordings to this disc.

As its title suggests, the programme is rooted, albeit not exclusively, in my adopted home county of Gloucestershire. The backbone of the collection is formed by no less than seventeen songs by Ivor Gurney, Gloucester born and bred. Indeed, the album takes its title from the title of Gurney’s first published collection of poems, Severn & Somme (1917). There’s also a song by Gurney’s lifelong friend, Herbert Howells, who hailed from Lydney and studied as a boy at Gloucester Cathedral, where he met Gurney. Though born in Essex, John Sanders became closely identified with Gloucester Cathedral, serving as its Assistant Organist (1958-1963) and then as Organist from 1967 to 1994. Christian Wilson came to Gloucester when he retired and he served for 12 years as Secretary of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. Ian Venables, a Liverpudlian by birth, has lived across the county boundary in Worcester for many years, so his connection with the River Severn is as strong as any of his fellow composers represented here; indeed, one of Venables’ finest sets of songs is the cycle Song of the Severn (2013), which was premiered and subsequently recorded by Roderick Williams (review)

The programme that Roderick Williams and Susie Allan put together for this disc includes several songs that are very well known. However, many are less familiar and out of the twenty-six songs they perform, no less than twelve of them here received their recorded premieres, including eight by Gurney. All of those eight Gurney songs were, at the time of recording, unpublished and had been edited by Philip Lancaster.

The Gurney songs are presented in roughly chronological order. On your midnight pallet is Gurney’s first setting of a Housman poem. The piano part is martial and over it the vocal line is seamlessly legato. Dearest, when I am dead sets a poem by a Gloucester-born poet, W E Henley (1849-1903). It’s a satisfying setting which builds to a rapturous, expansive climax on the last couplet, ‘Seeing, how goodly and great love, / Were your ways with me.’ However, I think that perhaps through inexperience, Gurney slightly miscalculated; so long is the sustained note on the word ‘love’ that after the preceding extensive phrase even a singer of Williams’ abilities needs a breath before singing that word. Edward, Edward is a Sots ballad consisting of six stanzas which might, in lesser hands, lend itself to strophic treatment. However, Gurney perceptively varies the music very effectively in each stanza according to the demands of the text. Williams relates the story vividly and Susie Allan invests the piano part with lots of vitality and varying colours.

In Flanders is surely one of the great English songs. The words are by F. W. ‘Will’ Harvey (1888-1957), a lifelong friend of both Gurney and Herbert Howells. Written in wartime France, the poem is an almost unbearably nostalgic evocation of home, taken to new heights by Gurney’s music. In this performance Susie Allan places every single note of the piano part perfectly while Roderick Williams sings with eloquence and with infinite care both for the words and for the musical line. Immediately following is Severn Meadows, another song which is fit only for the highest place in the pantheon of English song and one of the few settings that Gurney made of his own poetry. It lasts less than two minutes but it says so much in such a short span.

In complete contrasts stands Captain Stratton’s fancy, a rollicking setting of part of John Masefield’s poem which F W Harvey asked Gurney to make. He set less of the poem than Peter Warlock did in his song of the same name and it’s interesting that there are textural discrepancies between the two: almost certainly, Gurney, serving in the trenches in France, was setting Masefield’s lines from memory. I admire the clarity of Roderick Williams’ diction in this tongue-twisting song but I do wonder if his delivery could have been a little more unbuttoned. I think Warlock’s song is the finer of the two, but Gurney’s is far from negligible and most enjoyable.

Red Roses and Song of silence were composed in 1918 and both were dedicated to Annie Nelson Drummond, a nurse who tended Gurney in hospital. He fell for her but, sadly, his love was unrequited. Both of these are love songs. Red Roses, a lovely song, shows an enhanced harmonic adventure compared to many of Gurney’s earlier songs. Song of silence, probably a setting of Gurney’s own verse, is equally lovely. There’s rapture here but it’s of the introspective kind and Williams sings the song most expressively. The piano writing has echoes of late Brahms, I think. I spoke of harmonic adventure and that’s even more in evidence in the Edward Thomas setting, Lights out. This is a masterly song in every respect. Both the vocal line and the highly independent piano part are searching in nature. The intensity of the song is matched by the intensity of this performance.

Black Stitchel is one of Gurney’s best-known songs, and deservedly so. Its flowing lyricism is expertly conveyed here. Western sailors is one of Gurney’s very last musical compositions, though he continued writing poetry after 1926. The words to this song are probably by him and I find them very interesting. In illustrating how far sailors roam, the poet is peppered with references to destinations in the USA. However, the refrain keeps harking back to one source: ‘Of all the rivers yet I know, / I love Severn best’. Here, surely, we see Gurney, incarcerated in a Kent mental hospital, pining for his never-to-be-forgotten roots.

There’s just one song by Gurney’s friend Howells. Goddess of night sets lines by their mutual friend, Will Harvey; in fact, Gurney also made a setting of them. Howells’ song is aptly described in the notes as a “soothing nocturne”. Whilst not disagreeing, I think there’s also a decided air of mystery, at least in this highly atmospheric performance.

The two John Sanders songs come from his song cycle The Beacon. Yet again we have a Harvey song in the shape of On Painswick Beacon. The poem describes Harvey’s feelings on returning to Gloucestershire from war service and surveying his beloved home county of Gloucestershire from the hilly vantage point of Painswick Beacon between Gloucester and Stroud. Sanders’ music gradually expands to express the poet’s relief and pleasure. Cotswold choice sets a poem by Frank Mansell. The poem is a wistful paean to places in the Cotswold countryside to which Sanders responds with music that is modest in tone but very effective. Sadly, the disc was already generously filled so there wasn’t room on it for the other two songs in the cycle which, so far as I know, remain unrecorded.

To the best of my knowledge it’s only through this disc and therefore this pair of songs that I’ve encountered the music of Christian Wilson. His song The empty cottage sets a poem by Wilfrid Gibson and there’s another Gurney connection here because the lines set by Wilson are Gibson’s second version of his poem; the first was set by Gurney as All night under the moon (1918). I liked Wilson’s song and it could scarcely receive stronger advocacy than it does here. Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for doomed youth was memorably set by Britten in War Requiem. I presume Wilson’s setting came later. He doesn’t attempt as ‘public’ a setting as Britten, nor is his musical response as searing. Instead, the music is fairly subdued and intimate but it’s nonetheless deeply felt.

There’s a Gurney connection too with Ian Venables, who is a longstanding admirer of and advocate for Gurney’s music and poetry. Happily, his own songs are well represented on CD and here are four choice examples. Midnight lamentation is, I think I am right in saying, his very first song. Anyone listening to it will surely be astonished to learn from the notes that it’s the work of a nineteen-year-old. Susie Allan plays the searching prelude beautifully, paving the way for the truly memorable vocal line, which Roderick Williams delivers with great yet completely natural expression. Incidentally, the words in the second and third verses of the song differ quite a bit from the text printed in the booklet. A Kiss is a Thomas Hardy setting; both words and music are suffused with melancholy. By contrast, Flying crooked is a delectably witty little song. Easter song is an intriguing composition. The words are by Edgar Billingham (1897-1987). Though he lived and worked in Worcester, I learned from the notes that his ashes are interred in Gloucestershire, on Chosen Hill, the vantage point between Cheltenham and Gloucester. Both Gurney and Howells knew this spot well. The title of the poem might lead you to expect a joyful, extrovert poem and song, but such is not the case. Instead, much of the poem is thoughtful and inward, to which Venables responds suitably. It’s only in the last two lines that words and music achieve potent affirmation.

This is a very fine collection of songs which has been discerningly chosen. Throughout the programme Roderick Williams sings with his trademark sensitivity to words and music and with a tone that gives consistent pleasure. Susie Allan’s pianism is intuitive and perceptive; at all times she is ‘with’ her singer.

SOMM’s production values are high. The recording was engineered by Eric James who has achieved splendid results, balancing voice and piano expertly. The documentation is first rate. Graham J Lloyd provides an excellent note about the Venables songs, writing with the experience of many years of playing the composer’s music. The remaining songs are covered in an equally authoritative note by Anthony Boden. He writes with the benefit of deep knowledge of the Gurney-Howells-Harvey circle, as evidenced in his fine biography, F W Harvey. Soldier, Poet (1988, rev 2011). The care taken over this release even extends to the cover image. It’s a reproduction of a watercolour, ‘The Lassington Oak, Gloucestershire’ by Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888), father of Sir Hubert Parry, who lived at Highnam Court, just outside Gloucester, where he built a handsome Victorian Gothic church on the family estate.

If you like recordings of English song and haven’t yet encountered this excellent disc then I urge you to add it to your collection without delay It’s an ideal complement to the subsequent and equally desirable recital ‘Celebrating English Song’ (review)

John Quinn

Ivor GURNEY (1896-1937)
On your midnight pallet (1907) * [1:58]
Dearest, when I am dead (1908) * [1;54]
Edward, Edward (1913) [5:00]
Dreams of the sea (1914) * [4:00]
In Flanders [3:33]
Severn Meadows [1:56]
Dinny Hill* [0:52]
Captain Stratton’s fancy (1917) [2:33]
Red Roses (1918) * [2;43]
Song of silence (1918) * [3:30]
The white cascade (1918) * [1:58]
The folly of being comforted [5:05]
Desire in Spring [2:00]
Walking song (1919) [0:54]
Lights out (1919) [3:59]
Black Stitchel (1920) [2:14]
Western sailors (1926) * [2:34]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Goddess of night [2:51]
John SANDERS (1933-2003)
On Painswick Beacon* [2:33]
Cotswold choice* [2:43]
Christian WILSON (b 1920)
The empty cottage (2001) * [2:37]
Anthem for doomed youth* [3:22]
Ian VENABLES (b 1955)
Midnight lamentation [4:00]
A Kiss [4:20]
Flying crooked [1:07]
Easter song [3:40]
*denotes premiere recording

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