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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
Texts included

Gurney’s The Western Playland is one of his least-well remembered series of settings. The fact that he employed a piano quintet to accompany the singer, as he did in Ludlow and Teme – also recorded on this label – is clearly predicated on Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, but can cause logistical complications in performance, so it’s seldom heard in concert and has only made fleeting appearances on disc too. This new recording preserves Philip Lancaster’s editorial work in his new edition and its release in the centenary year of the work’s composition is apt.

It’s not simply the new edition that distinguishes this new reading from those of Stephen Varcoe (with Burnside and the Delmé) on Hyperion and Graham Trew with Roger Vignoles and the Coull on Meridian. One can hear each inflexion of Roderick Williams’ singing and Michael Dussek’s piano and the Bridge Quartet players are also well balanced. Williams’ vocal production is more rounded and flexible than either of the previously cited baritones, something that becomes even clearer as the songs accumulate – in fact it’s clear in the second setting Loveliest of Trees. Dussek deftly places the piano line in Golden Friends (better known as With rue my heart is laden) whilst Twice a Week is fiery and dramatic. Gurney meshes the string textures, piano and voice beautifully in The Aspens and Williams takes it at a far more pressing, intense tempo than Trew. The final setting, March, brings the cycle to a powerful, impressive close.

As a little experiment I listened again to Roderick Williams’ recording of the song Edward, Edward, which he recorded on SOMM CD057 with Susie Allan back in 2005. This Potton Hall recording of the song is much more focused and better balanced than the Somm, and Williams has since grown in vocal maturity. His projection then was inclined to be static, but he is more interventionist, more theatrical and whilst more daring with his dynamics, still thoughtful, malleable and very word-conscious. By a Bierside is the only other Gurney setting here. Comparison with that fine bass Michael George, with Clifford Benson, in their War’s Embers programme on Hyperion again shows the clarity and directness of the Williams-Dussek pairing – the melismatic phrases are especially touching here.

He also essays four songs by Gurney’s great friend Herbert Howells which were written between 1915 and 1919. The delicacy of There was a Maiden contrasts brightly with the folksy drollery of Girl’s Song. Williams is not really the man for The Mugger’s Song. You need a Benjamin Luxon to get the swagger and Luxon certainly outguns the gentlemanly Williams, though his Chandos recording is disappointingly billowy. Luxon also sang King David, one of Howells’s great songs but here Williams and Dussek draw out its lyric beauty with masterful control.

This is the first recording of Gurney’s String Quartet in D minor of 1924-25. As my colleague John Quinn noted in his review of this disc in the EM disc called Heracleitus there was the premiere recording of a single movement, the Adagio in an edition of the movement made by Lancaster but here the whole Quartet has been transcribed by Michael Schofield, violist of The Bridge Quartet. It’s cast in pastoral form, in four movements, and secure miking allows each of the parts to be heard with perfect clarity and directness. Harmonically interesting though it can be, it can also be prolix in the first movement. His absorption in the Razumovsky Quartets can be felt most weightily in the Adagio where the textures can seem Beethovenian and full of slowing effusive power. There’s no Scherzo, rather an Andante con moto, and in the finale, along with much syncopation and revisiting of earlier themes, the writing is again not wholly free of clottedness.

Gurney’s watercolour use of the quartet in his vocal cycles is of no use in a Quartet as such where strong themes and distribution of material is at a premium. If he had had the opportunity to revise the work and to make it more concise, perhaps converting it into a cyclical one-movement, Cobbett-style form I am convinced it would be a more viable work. Nevertheless, it’s of significance to admirers of the composer to hear his musical developments in the mid-20s in strictly chamber form.

I’ve noted the excellent performances and recording quality and EM never stints on documentation or photographic reproduction quality.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous reviews: John Quinn ~ Stuart Sillitoe

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