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Sir Arthur SOMERVELL (1863-1937)
Maud (1898) [35:07]
A Kingdom by the Sea (1901) [3:36]
A Shropshire Lad (1904) [21:05]
Shepherd’s Cradle Song [2:35]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Susie Allan (piano)
rec. 2019, Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, UK
Texts included

In 2019 Roderick Williams and Susie Allan visited Cheltenham to give a recital of English song as part of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival. Normally, I regard a recital by them as a mandatory part of my Three Choirs reviewing schedule for Seen and Heard but I must admit that on this occasion I was mildly thoughtful because the main item on the agenda was Somervell’s cycle, Maud. It had been a while since I’d heard these songs and, relying on a lazy memory of them as rather Victorian, I wondered if I wanted to hear them. However, trusting the judgement of these perceptive artists, I went along and I was jolly glad I did, because not only was the recital as a whole very rewarding but their account of Maud was a real ear-opener (review). Roderick Williams said at the time that they’d deliberately adopted an “interventionist” approach to the songs and that certainly came through in their performance. I’d heard on the grapevine that they had recorded Maud as part of an all-Somervell disc, but I didn’t realise until this disc arrived recently that the sessions took place only about a week before that Cheltenham performance.

As Jeremy Dibble points out in his very useful notes, Somervell selected lines from Tennyson’s substantial narrative epic, Maud, which in its original form extends to no less than 28 poems. By dint of very judicious pruning, Somervell reduced what Dibble refers to as the “tangled verses” to 13 songs. That in itself was a major editorial feat but Somervell also managed to fashion his extracts into a narrative, albeit a narrative that is often implied. Very briefly, the story opens with the narrator lamenting his father’s suicide. Then he encounters the young Maud and by the time we get to the fourth song, he’s smitten. Eventually, after he’s succeeded in getting Maud to come into the garden, they are surprised by her brother who challenges our hero to a duel. Maud’s brother dies in the duel and, after blaming himself, the narrator, whose name we never learn, effectively has a breakdown and the cycle ends with him resolving to go off to fight in battle. He expects – nay, hopes – to die and to be reunited in death with Maud, who has herself died (though there’s no allusion to her death in Somervell’s cycle,)

The booklet includes a very interesting essay by Roderick Williams in which he discusses both of these cycles and his approach to them. One point which struck me is that his interpretation of the text of Maud is that at early in the cycle, the narrator dislikes the young lady. That comes out in Williams’ performance of songs two and three, but it’s a highly personal interpretation. It’s not mentioned by Jeremy Dibble nor is such a view apparent in the rival performance by David Wilson-Johnson in his 1985 Hyperion Helios recording (review). For myself, I find Williams’ view entirely plausible. Incidentally, the recording by Wilson-Johnson, accompanied by David Owen Norris, is the only one with which I can compare this newcomer. There is in the catalogue also a 1974 recording by John Carol Case; I haven’t heard that but I see that Tully Potter expressed some significant reservations (review). There’s a 1998 disc containing an interesting selection of Somervell songs sung by three singers, but unfortunately Christopher Maltman only sings three of the Maud songs (Naxos 8.557113).

In the first song, ‘I hate the dreadful hollow’, the protagonist has found his father’s body. Susie Allan’s big, imposing piano introduction sets the tone for Williams’ strongly declamatory singing. Wilson-Johnson, who has a larger voice, is equally potent. However, at the line ‘The red-ribb’d ledges drip…’ Williams is more daring with the dynamics and more imaginative in his delivery of the text. In the following song. ‘A voice by the cedar tree’. Williams conveys his distaste for Maud, especially in the third stanza. Wilson-Johnson sings the song very well but seems more obviously smitten. In the Williams performance, it’s only at the end of the third song, which he delivers beautifully, that we sense the protagonist may be falling under Maud’s spell. Wilson-Johnson, with his larger voice, isn’t so gently tender.

In the fourth song, ‘O let the solid ground’, and again in the sixth, ‘Maud has a garden’, there’s a Schumannesque eagerness in both the rippling piano part and in the vocal line. Williams and Allen convey this expertly. I like the delicacy the pair bring to ‘Birds in the high Hall garden’. By contrast, Wilson-Johnson and Norris take this song a bit more slowly and Norris seems to use a lot more pedal; as a result, their performance has less freshness and delicacy. ‘Come into the garden, Maud’ will be forever associated with – and, in my opinion, hobbled by – Michael Balfe’s 1857 setting; it’s a dreadful piece of Victoriana. Somervell’s response to the text is considerably better. In the first three stanzas Williams and Allan invest the music with an infectious lilt – the sparkling piano playing is a delight – and from verse four onwards there’s suitable ardour in their performance.

Then the cycle turns without any transition or warning from delight to despair. The tenth song, ‘The fault was mine’, follows the death of Maud’s brother in the duel. Though my understanding is that it was the brother who issued the challenge, our hero nonetheless is weighed down with guilt. There’s an extended and sombre piano introduction which is expertly weighted by Susie Allan, who plays most expressively. David Owen Norris is also impressive but the sonority of his piano, heard in a thirty-five-year-old recording, isn’t as rich. When, eventually, Roderick Williams begins to sing (1:44), the shock and self-reproach are all-too evident in his voice. The following song, ‘Dead, long dead’, starts to illustrate, in Roderick Williams’ view, the protagonist’s breakdown. Here, the piano writing is tumultuous and reminiscent, I think, of the young Brahms. Williams conveys to the full the desperation of the narrator. After the short, touching ‘O that ‘twere possible’ – well done in both performances – we reach the dénouement in ‘My life has crept so long’. Wilson-Johnson sings nobly and brings both song and cycle to a big, heroic finish. However, I think Williams finds rather more in the song, adding an extra dimension. I hear more expressive detail from him and a more nuanced approach to the words in the opening pages of the song; his slower pace helps too. Then, in the closing pages (from ‘And I stood on a giant deck…’) his earlier reflectiveness gives way to fortitude as the protagonist goes forward to meet his fate; the contrast with the way the earlier part of the song has been performed enables this “big finish” to make its mark.

The recording by David Wilson-Johnson and David Owen Norris has much to commend it. However, I think that consistently Roderick Williams and Susie Allan find and bring out more in the music. Theirs is a revelatory reading which thoroughly blows away any Victorian cobwebs that may cling to these songs. It is, in fact, a game changer.

In his scholarly notes, Jeremy Dibble references a couple of sets of songs – by Sir Arthur Sullivan and by Liza Lehmann - which may have claims to predate Somervell’s Maud as the first English song cycle. However, it appears that Somervell can claim the distinction of being the first composer to set poems from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896). He set ten poems, publishing them in 1904, and it’s unfortunate that they’ve been overshadowed by the subsequent settings by composers such as George Butterworth, John Ireland, Graham Peel or Ralph Vaughan Williams. However, as this present performance has reminded me, there’s much to admire and relish in Somervell’s settings. It’s very difficult, I find, to banish from one’s musical muscle memory such gems as Butterworth’s ‘Loveliest of trees’ or ‘The lads in their hundreds’ but these, and the settings by others that came after them, were composed in a different, dare one say less innocent age than Somervell’s. When recently I interviewed Susie Allan, I asked her about these songs and she said of the Housman cycle: “There is an economy of style here in the piano parts, which characterises these songs, resulting in a feeling of Victorian stiff upper lip and face-value simplicity.” She was primarily referring to the piano parts, but it’s interesting to note that in his booklet essay on the music, Roderick Williams notes that, compared to later settings which he has performed, “the subtext in Housman’s poetry is completely absent in Somervell’s music. The poetry is taken absolutely at face value.” Since they’ve obviously prepared these songs together in great depth it’s unsurprising that there should be such an identity of view between these two artists but their comments underline, I think, the importance of us appreciating these songs for what they are, not judging them for what they are not.

‘Loveliest of trees’ is a simple but very effective strophic song. The melody is both memorable and disarming. There’s a smooth, easy flow to the present performance and that suits the song to a tee. Williams and Allan convey the gentle innocence of Somervell’s setting. David Wilson-Johnson isn’t quite as convincing because his voice is larger and he lacks Williams’ lightness of touch. For these songs we have another contender: Christopher Maltman sings the complete set on the Naxos disc I referenced earlier. I enjoyed his account of all the songs, even if in this opening item his demeanour is more serious than Roderick Williams’. ‘When I was one and twenty’ is a very pleasing song; Williams sings it engagingly. I liked Maltman’s version too and I thought he, more than our other two singers, suggested a cross-reference to George Butterworth’s celebrated setting. ‘In summertime on Bredon’ is the longest song in the set. In the first four stanzas the Williams-Allan interpretation conveys happiness. By comparison, David Wilson-Johnson’s traversal, at a slower speed, sounds a trifle lugubrious. I think I can sum up the respective approaches by saying that Williams is the narrator while Wilson-Johnson seems to be an observer. When events take a more serious turn in the last three stanzas, Wilson-Johnson sings expressively but Williams is able to point a far greater contrast with what has gone before, and that’s much more effective. Maltman is much closer to Williams than Wilson-Johnson in the way he delivers the song, though I feel Williams is more imaginative overall. That said, in stanzas 5 and 6 I think Maltman runs Williams a very close second.

‘On the idle hill of summer’ is a fine setting. The first stanza refers to military drummers and this is foreshadowed in the piano introduction. Here, I think Susie Allan is better than David Owen Norris at evoking little drum rolls. It’s only a small detail, you may say, but it speaks to the imaginative preparation of the Williams-Allan performances. Williams mines the vocal line for meaning with his variations of tone colour and fine observance of dynamics. Wilson-Johnson, well though he sings, is not as inward. ‘White in the moon the long road lies’ is a most interesting song; the music is very introspective. Williams and Allan really do justice to its expressive stature. The penultimate song is ‘Into my heart an air that kills’, which seems to me to be the key to the whole cycle. The poem is a mere eight lines long and the first four of these are delivered quietly by the singer on just one note. The real interest lies in the piano part where Somervell reprises, at a slower tempo, the wistful melody which we heard in the opening song, ‘Loveliest of trees’. Then the melody is taken up by the singer for the remaining four lines. It’s all so poignant, and the allusion couldn’t be clearer. Wilson-Johnson and Norris take the song more slowly and I feel that neither singer nor pianist inflects the music as tenderly or wistfully as Williams and Allan achieve. Christopher Maltman and his pianist, Graham Johnson, give an excellent account of this song; they make it as poetic as Williams and Allan.

Somervell closes his cycle with ‘The lads in their hundreds’, another poem which I associate above all with George Butterworth. The Somervell setting is intriguing in that it’s cast in the rather unusual time signature of 15 / 8; this gives the music an interestingly irregular gait. Wilson-Johnson’s is a fairly bluff account, though he manages to be expressive too. The Williams performance is taken a little more swiftly and as a result more of a lilt is imparted to the music. For me, the lightness of touch that we experience not just from Roderick Williams’ singing but, just as much, from Susie Allan’s playing highlights the poignancy of both the poem and the music. There’s a wholly unexpected moment at the end of the third stanza (‘And watch them depart on the way that they will not return’). Completely out of the blue, Somervell modulates to the key of E at the end of that line. That in itself is an arresting gesture but then the pianist has a short passage which brings us back to the basic melodic material in time for the final stanza. Graham Johnson and David Owen Norris both play this crucial passage very well indeed, as you’d expect, but Susie Allan is best of all, finding even more poetry than her peers through an exquisite touch. This Somervell setting may not equal George Butterworth’s but……

Roderick Williams and Susie Allan offer two extra songs, one after each cycle. A Kingdom by the Sea is a setting of part of the very last poem completed by Edgar Allan Poe. The music is essentially simple in design but it communicates very directly with the listener. Poe’s verse tells a tragic tale and Roderick Williams really tells the story, drawing you into the narrative. In a fine, sensitive performance the very end of the song really shows off his top register. The final song on the disc is Shepherd’s Cradle Song. I’ve not been able to establish exactly when this was composed: internet searches return several dates, mostly before 1900. Jeremy Dibble rightly describes it as an “enchanting lullaby”. It benefits here from Williams’ light, seamless delivery of the vocal line and Susie Allan’s delicate, understanding pianism. It’s the perfect conclusion to their programme.

Earlier I described this recording of Maud as a game changer. To be truthful, I think that term applies to the disc as a whole in terms of our appreciation of Arthur Somervell’s songs. The performances by Roderick Williams and Susie Allan are superb, evidencing not just terrific musicianship but also highly perceptive understanding of both words and music. If anyone is going to show the injustice of pejoratively labelling Somervell as Victorian and to rescue his music from that pigeon hole then it’s Williams and Allan. The disc by David Wilson-Johnson and David Owen Norris has much to commend it, but almost without exception, every time I made a comparison I found in favour of the newcomer. The Christopher Maltman-Graham Johnson account of A Shropshire Lad is a distinguished one – I’d place it between the SOMM and Hyperion Helios discs – and it’s a pity they were restricted to just three songs from Maud. On the other hand, that Naxos CD includes several rarely heard Somervell songs, and so I’d say that disc complements this new SOMM offering.

As usual, SOMM’s presentation values are very high. The recorded sound, engineered by Paul Arden-Taylor, is excellent. Singer and pianist are clearly and realistically heard and the balance between the two is very good indeed. The documentation includes not only all the texts but also an authoritative set of notes by Jeremy Dibble and an indispensable essay by Roderick Williams explaining his approach to the songs and how, as he says, he reconciled “my 21st-century ‘post-modern’ standpoint with this music that sounded to me initially so much part of its time”. And that last comment sums up, for me, the value of this disc. Through their artistry and open-minded approach, Roderick Williams and Susie Allan have banished any whiff of the Victorian parlour and demonstrated that these songs by Arthur Somervell belong fairly and squarely in the great English song tradition. For that we owe them great gratitude.

John Quinn

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