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Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
Façade Suites Nos. 1-2 (arr. Constant Lambert) [8:44]
Four Songs: No. 4 The Winds [1:42]
Three Songs to Poems by Edith Sitwell: No. 1 Daphne [2:53]
Tritons [1:54]
Siesta, for piano four hands [4:41]
Under The Greenwod tree [1:49]
Beatriz’s Song (arr. C Palmer) [2:47]
Constant LAMBERT (1905-1951)
Trois pieces nègres pour les touches blanches [8:44]
8 Poems of Li-Po 15:46]
James Geer (tenor)
Andrew West, Ronald Woodley (piano)
rec. 2019, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK

This is another top-notch release from SOMM with excellence in every department- a typically imaginative programme, immaculately performed and produced back up with a fascinating liner note and full texts.  Even the riotous cover illustration - "The Tango" by Georges Barbier is an apt delight.

SOMM quite often favour programmes based on combining composers around common themes - the recent Bax/Harriet Cohen or "Gluepot" discs spring to mind.  Here close friends and oft-times collaborators William Walton and Constant Lambert are brought together. The pianist Ronald Woodley contributes the really excellent liner note and sums up Lambert thus; "a remarkable, brilliant and multi-talented musician writer and critic astonishingly little regarded today, especially considering the white heat with which his star shone among his contemporaries".  Indeed, that white heat, and the hedonistic and hectic lifestyle it engendered no doubt were major causes of his death at just 45 years old.  In the photographs of Lambert taken towards the end of that curtailed life, he looks a good twenty years older.  Walton, older by three years, outlived Lambert by thirty-two, and he called Lambert one of his closest friends.  The links between the composers and the friends are woven through this disc in a very interesting and compelling way - to such a degree that you wonder why no-one had thought of a similar project before.

Lambert's "curse" is to be remembered - if remembered at all - as the composer of the occasional work The Rio Grande.  A huge hit at the time of its composition it crackled with contemporary wit and allusion but has fared less well than many other jazz-age works.  As a composer, Lambert is probably a minor genius, but the genius he has is best demonstrated in the works on this disc: the Trois pièces nègres pour les touches blanches and his eight song settings of Li Po.  The former is a late work and here the harmonic and rhythmic language of jazz and the influence of Afro-Caribbean music have been fully absorbed and distilled into three brief, but tersely expressive, movements for piano duet.  Of course, the title sits slightly uneasily with 21st century sensibilities but Lambert's music is clearly inspired by the influences and the compositional conceit of writing purely on the white notes of the piano prompts him to produce music which is musically appealing and aesthetically satisfying.  The performance here is quite excellent.  Ronald Woodley and Andrew West play with exactly the kind of articulate clarity and precision the music requires while also having the swaying rubato to give it the expressive freedom to lift it out of any sense of rigidity.

Even more remarkable, as jewel-like pieces of miniature perfection, are the eight settings of Li-Po.  Li-Po lived from 701-762 and of course was set by Mahler in his Das Lied von der Erde.  Lambert's settings could not be more different; again, to quote Woodley, they are; "exquisitely crafted, restrained and often enigmatic miniatures".  These eight songs comprise Lambert's total song output and were written between 1927-30; they are about as far as they could be from the riotous energy of the Rio Grande.  The piano writing is extraordinarily economical and precise in its textures and effect.  Lambert was always an internationalist in his musical influences from Russia to France and this music has at times a Satie-esque minimalism.  The vocal writing sounds grateful, in some ways superficially 'simple' yet with an elusive emotional weight.  Tenor James Greer sings these songs with an ideal balance of directness and clarity - both technically and emotionally.   Lambert made a version of these songs for voice and small ensemble which received an excellent recording on Hyperion from the Nash Ensemble with Philip Langridge in predictably sensitive form.  However, I think the instrumental group adds a kind of additional aural sensuality which, no matter how alluring it is, somehow diminishes the purity of Lambert's original conception.  Admirers of Lambert's music should hear both versions - but to my ear the essence of the work resides in the piano original and this is a quite superb performance.  Ronald Woodley's accompaniments are sensitive, beautifully clean and articulate and caught in the generous acoustic of Potton Hall in a perfect balance by producer/engineer Andrew Halifax.  There is a collection of the complete Lambert/Walton songs on Etcetera with Yvonne Kenny sensitively accompanied by Malcolm Martineau.  In these Li-Po settings they adopt a more overtly expressive performance style, with Martineau's use of rubato a model of musicianly playing, but somehow I feel this diminishes the emotional detachment which is so marked in these works.

Walton was slightly more prolific as a song writer.  This disc includes the bulk of his songs with piano, except for the two cycles Anon in Love and Song for the Lord Mayor's table (included on the Kenny-Martineau disc) and they are slighter works.  The main interest lies in the youthful brilliance of Walton's setting of Swinburne aged just 16 years - The Winds - as well as another Swinburne setting, Tritons, from a couple of years later.  The precocity of the writing is not in doubt and there are some faint indications of the sheer energy and élan which would be a feature of Walton's music up until the outbreak of World War II.  These are again exemplary performances of all of these songs although, by the simple functional nature of the music thy are not as revelatory as the Li-Po settings. 

The only performance on this disc that I appreciated rather than was utterly compelled by is Walton's own arrangement of Siesta for piano duet.  The benefit of the two piano format is, again, clarity, which makes one appreciate the detail and complexity of Walton's inner part writing.  In its more common orchestral guise, this five-minute miniature can seem like a rather indolent hazy-lazy afternoon in the sun - but isn't that exactly what it should be?  The performance here by Andrew West and Ronald Woodley is technically superb but rather forthright, literal and lacking in mood painting.  Richard Hickox on his collection of English Music Miniatures on EMI day-dreamed his way to 6:11 while even Walton himself took 5:41. The duet version here is exactly one minute quicker than the composer’s.  Also, in quite the reverse effect to the piano/instrumental setting of the Li-Po songs, the orchestral version does allow an extra sensuality and warmth into the music which is to its benefit.

There are no such concerns with the two suites of music from Walton's Façade which complete the disc.  Here, the Lambert influence is present on multiple levels.  In his life-time, Lambert became the pre-eminent reciter of the original version.  Woodley in the liner note mentions that Walton was not too keen on writing the original music until he was told if he didn't Lambert would.  One thing that I did not know - it is not indicated as such in the published score of the orchestral suites – is that Lambert orchestrated four of the six movements of the second suite.  Furthermore, he arranged both the suites presented here for piano duet.  In its orchestral guise - and by extension these piano duet arrangements - this music is one of those happy rarities: occasional music which has transcended the original occasion.  Walton managed to capture the subversive humour and brilliance of the age and distil it into being some of the most genuinely witty music ever written.  West and Woodley fully capture the gleeful energy of this music but also the lyrical languor of movements such as Noche espagnola.  These suites are Walton at his most tuneful and direct and they receive a performance brimming with good humour and intelligence.

This is an absolute gem of a disc in every regard.  Without a doubt, Walton was the finer composer of the two with a catalogue of enduring masterpieces.  However, the particular delight of this excellent collection is to remind the listener that at his considerable best Constant Lambert was a composer of real stature and one whose star still deserves to shine today.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: Ian Lace

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