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One Hundred Years of British Song - Volume 1 Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)
A Vigil of Pentecost (1914) [2:48]
The Ballad of Hunting Knowe (1920's?) [1:54]
Five Songs from "Twelve Humbert Wolfe Songs" (1929) [16:01] Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
June Twilight (1925) [2:51]
The Seal Man (1922) [5:58]
A Dream (1926) [2:04]
Eight O'Clock (1927) [2:10] Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Down by the Salley Gardens (1921) [2:54]
Snow (Pre-War) [2:36]
Lights Out (1919) [4:11]
Sleep (1912) [3:25] Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Four Songs (1925) [18:56]
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Nathan Williamson (piano)
rec. The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d'Abernon, England 2-3 January 2020 SOMM SOMMCD0621 [63:37]
According to the detailed and interesting liner written by pianist/accompanist Nathan Williamson, this is the first disc of a three volume survey of British Song in the 20th Century. Each disc will focus on a particular period, with this disc centred roughly on and in the aftermath of World War I. No surprise given the quantity and quality of the music to choose from that the calibre of the songs selected here is high. With the exception of the first two songs by Holst which open the disc, all the repertoire has been recorded before, some of it many times. So in some ways it is better to approach this as a recital complete and of itself. Those seeking, for example, the complete Twelve Humbert Wolfe Songs by Holst will need to look elsewhere. Interestingly, starting over twenty years ago, SOMM produced a similar three volume "A Century of English Song" in that case with soprano Sarah Leonard the principal singer. I think that was due to be a six disc series but I am not sure it ever got beyond the third volume.
Several elements of this new disc are evident from first to last. Tenor James Gilchrist has superb diction with every word crystal clear and no need for the listener to make use of the full texts (English only) supplied in the liner. Likewise he is willing to deploy a very wide dynamic range for maximum expressive effect. This is particularly beguiling in the softer, lyrical passages where he floats his voice very beautifully. But one thing that struck me on several occasions; Gilchrist is an excellent storyteller. This is not just a question of word-painting or emphasising this phrase or that. He has the knack of characterising the songs in a compelling way - Rebecca Clark's setting of John Masefield's The Seal Man is a case in point - that transcends use of accents or "singer-acting". He simply draws the listener in. British tenors are always a matter of taste and there probably have been singers with a more sheerly beautiful sound than Gilchrist - Ian Partridge always springs to mind by that measure. Likewise Anthony Rolfe-Johnson's performance of Gurney's Down by the Salley Gardens on an old IMP disc - which includes achingly beautiful versions of the Songs of Travel and Butterworth's A Shropshire Lad to boot - remains my desert island performance of that disarmingly poignant song. However Gilchrist mines a different emotional vein by not simply relying on ravishing the ear.
In this he is helped enormously by the exceptionally sympathetic and perceptive piano playing of Nathan Williamson. Some of the musical settings deliberately illustrate their text from tolling bells in the Clarke/Housman Eight O'Clock to "Toccatas Purcell might have fingered" in the Holst/Wolfe The Floral Bandit. Elsewhere the composer simply seeks to create a lush harmonic bed on which the song can be cradled; the Clarke/Masefield June Twilight or Gurney/Fletcher Sleep are good examples. In either scenario Williamson's playing is apposite and alert to every nuance. Likewise the SOMM production and engineering is everything we have come to expect from this most expert of teams. The balance between voice and keyboard is ideally achieved with neither masking or detracting from the other. The piano sits slightly to the left of centre of the stereo picture with the voice to the right. The acoustic in The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d'Abernon is likewise ideal, neither flatteringly resonant or testingly dry. My only observation regarding the chosen repertoire is that there is a preponderance of songs of a certain pensive or even darker mood. Across the course of the hour's recital I felt as if there could have been a wider emotional range. I do wonder whether programme compilers fight shy of songs of a more overtly light-hearted or "brighter" character as if more serious topics make for a weightier musical experience.
The two Holst premieres are of interest but no lost masterpieces. Williamson rightly draws a parallel between the Vigil of Pentecost's opening and Venus from the Planets which Holst was writing in 1914. I must admit I found the "ghostly lover" narrative of The Ballad of Hunting Knowe rather mundane alongside Clarke's Seal Man seducer. Holst wrote this in the 1920's and to my ear it is one of those pieces where he is trying just a bit too hard to be a populist. The stars aligned happily in the St. Paul's Suite where clarity of musical thought and memorable themes come together. When Holst tries to appeal directly it rarely achieves its aim. The chasm in quality between this Ballad and the Wolfe Songs is evident from the first bars. These songs - not intended as a cycle - date from late in Holst's life - 1929 - and in many ways they show him reaching towards his goal of maximum expressive achievement with minimum musical means. Gilchrist chooses five of the most famous from the set of twelve and each is given a fine performance. Listeners wanting to hear all twelve - cycle or not - do not have a great deal of choice; Philip Langridge performed it for Collins reissued as part of the Naxos English Song series. The first recording of them all was by Britten and Pears for Argo latterly on Australian Eloquence. I have not heard that version for years.
The highlight of this disc for me are the songs I had never heard before by Rebecca Clarke. My knowledge of Clarke is limited to the obligatory Viola Sonata and some other chamber works. Clarke's ability to condense atmosphere and real narrative drama into relatively brief songs and give them musical settings of interest and independent power is very impressive. I have already mentioned The Seal Man but all four of her settings here are of considerable quality. The Housman text she chose - Eight O'Clock - is less familiar than many of his 'Shropshire Lad' poems and rather chilling in its eight brief lines. The time of the title is the traditional hour of execution and Housman relates a man "strapped, noosed, nighing his hour". In barely two minutes Clarke etches this scene vividly with Gilchrist singing with a bleached and drained hypnotic inevitability in the first half of the song building to a powerful climax with Williamson evoking the horror of the occasion compellingly.
The four Gurney songs are again trusty "favourites" and fine examples of the composer's highly individual Art. As a poet and composer Gurney had a particular feel for the effectiveness of the poetry he set and that is evident in each of the songs here. In his liner Williamson writes with particular insight into Gurney's genius which he describes thus; "I am hypnotized by the terrible darkness of his songs, their depth of feeling and fragile, naive tenderness." Again Gilchrist's unerring sense of story-telling digs deep into the shadows that lie in all four of these songs. Frank Bridge's artistic reaction to World War I is well documented and his Four Songs (1925) are again well-known and often-recorded in both the piano and orchestral versions. By this stage in his compositional development Bridge was exploring a more complex harmonic palette than he had pre-1920 but these songs find him at his most rapturous. I must admit I had never heard the first two of these songs - Day after Day and Speak to me, my love! - sung by a man. This is not just a case of the text being gender-specific but also that the actual sung pitch for a woman being an octave higher than for a man gives the music the sense of soaring rapture I referred to earlier. Also, in purely technical terms Gilchrist's voice is not quite as fluently seamless as Janice Watson was on the Hyperion set of collected Bridge songs. Watson is accompanied by the ever-excellent Roger Vignoles but it must be said that Nathan Williamson is even more probing and thoughtful in his beautifully crafted accompaniments. On the Hyperion set tenor Jamie MacDougall joins Vignoles for the final two songs; Dweller in my deathless dreams and the wonderful Journey's End. MacDougall is very good but Gilchrist trumps him with his innate dramatic sense. This makes for a powerful and moving conclusion to the recital.
Discs such as this will always have people discussing the music omitted as much as that included and the simple truth is there is no such thing as a perfect programme. Personally I would happily have traded some Holst for the presence of Vaughan Williams, Warlock, Finzi or Ireland (I am guessing the latter will not be present in the second volume?). Also, I do find the mood of the recital as a whole to be rather unrelenting even though each element is individually excellent as is the technical presentation of the disc in its entirety.