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One Hundred Years of British Song - Volume 2
William ALWYN (1905-1985)
A Leave-Taking (1978) [25:43]
Alan BUSH (1900-1995)/Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Prison Cycle (1939) [9:44]
Two Songs to Poems of John Fletcher (1943) [4:15]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
Three Donne Songs (1966) [12:28]
Doreen CARWITHEN (1922-2003)
Serenade [1:21]
Noon [2:03]
Echo (Seven Sweet Notes) [2:10]
The Ride-by-Nights [1:30]
Clear Had the Day Been [1:45]
Slow Spring [2:41]
Echo (Who Called?) [2:08]
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Nathan Williamson (piano)
rec. 15-16 July 2020, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK

I listened to William Alwyn’s A Leave-Taking with mixed feelings. On the one hand, there is much beauty in these settings, yet on the other, they are “unremitting in their sense of loneliness and loss”. There is nothing optimistic here. Even the one seeming exception, Daffodils, which initially, and rather positively, considers the return of Spring, ends up being forlorn. Considerable chromaticism is the order of the day in this song-cycle. There is much dissonance, and the vocal line is often declaimed rather than sung.  Here and there, Alwyn pares down the texture to the barest bones. I love the sound of these songs, but I struggle with the sentiment. The highlight for me is the musical onomatopoeia reflecting the sea in the third number, The Ocean Wood. The poems were taken from the work of John Byrne Leicester Warren, 3rd Baron de Tabley (1835-95). The baron was an English poet, numismatist, botanist and specialist on bookplates. On reading these often-depressing poems, the listener will not be surprised to learn that he was also a recluse!

I am not going to get involved with the politics of Alan Bush, whether Marxist, Socialist, Stalinist or nodding to Harry Pollitt, and his associate composer of the Prison Cycle, Alan Rawsthorne, was hardly right-of-centre in his political views. The Prison Cycle is neither Left nor Right in its appeal. It concerns any political prisoner who is incarcerated for their beliefs and principles rather than their crimes. The structure of the “cycle” is a little ritornello with the first, third and final songs imagining the prisoner pacing up and down in their tiny cell. In the second, the poet appreciates “familiar objects” around himself: the table, the window bars and even the midges. The fourth sees the poet contemplating a swallow’s nest built on the windowsill – until the callous guards destroy it. This is heart-breaking. The text was written by the socialist author Ernst Toller (1893-39), who was incarcerated by the Germans following his involvement in the Bavarian Workers’ Republic. He finally committed suicide during May 1939. Bush wrote the first, second and last songs, and Rawsthorne the third and fourth. This song-cycle is approachable, despite the harrowing environment. There is a definite claustrophobic feel to this music as befits the context. It is sung in German, with an English translation provided in the insert.

Alan Rawsthorne wrote his Two Songs to Poems of John Fletcher (1579-1625) in 1943. Both were criticised for their “intellectualism” at the time of publication, but 80 years down the road we can listen to this music that is “full of harmonic and rhythmic fantasy” without getting too hung up on changes of time signatures, and modulations, both enharmonic and otherwise. No longer does Rawsthorne’s musical language appear to us to be “advanced”; in fact, the second song, God Lyaeus (God of fertility and wine!) is humorous and looks to the music hall, rather than the recital room for its inspiration.

This disc includes the premiere recording of Elizabeth Maconchy’s enigmatic The Donne Songs (John Donne, 1572-1631). These settings were published in 1966 but had been composed over a six-year period. The liner notes suggest that they form a triptych, looking at three “Powers” of the Universe. The first, A Hymn to God the Father, calls on God to forgive the poet’s numerous, but unnamed, sins.  It is followed by the long A Hymn to Christ. This was penned during the Donne’s last trip to Germany. Here Donne prays for his future and asks God to look after those he has left behind. Finally, The Sun Rising majors on erotic love. The poet chastises the rising Sun for interrupting his night of passion with his paramour, declaring, “Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide/Late school-boys, and sour prentices” -but finally, the Sun is invited to be part of their Universe. This is Britten-esque in style, full of musical irony, wit and even mock anger.

The liner notes sum up better than I can: “[These] are substantial, ambitious songs, imbued with a genuine sense of drama by an assured composer at the height of her powers.” The text in the booklet (p.20) for the third number is mistitled A Hymn to Christ instead of The Sun Rising.

I have been a fan of Doreen Carwithen/Mary Alywn since first hearing the Chandos CD devoted to her music. (CHAN 9524, 1997). It included the Suffolk Suite, the Concerto for piano and strings and the overtures ODTAA “One Damn thing after Another” and Bishop’s Rock. Since then, there have been several CDs in whole or in part devoted to her music; in fact, I understand that most of her surviving compositions are now available to the listener. The present seven songs are a welcome addition to her catalogue. Dates are not given, but I am guessing that they are not presented chronologically. They are all premiere recordings. The liner notes explain that they represent Carwithen’s entire output for voice and piano. There also exists an undated part-song for children’s voices, The Silver Penny

These songs are very much of their time, with little to challenge the listener. The first, a Serenade, provides a straightforward setting of Sir Philp Sydney’s (1554-86) My True Love hath my Heart, and I His. Next up are the timeless Three Songs to Poems by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956): Noon, Echo and Ride by Nights. This latter song moves away from the thoughtful, explorations of the first two and is written in a more popular idiom, yet there is sufficient stylistic unity here for them to be performed as a group.  The poet Michael Drayton (1563-1631) has suffered neglect in recent years. I remember as a teenager battling my way through his great (and long) topographical poem Poly-oblion (1612). It remains a formative literary experience. Carwithen has set A Summer’s Day (“Clear had the day been from the dawn”). She has introduced a hint of blues or jazz into this perfect description of a beautiful, romantic day on the Downs. Katharine Tynan (1859-1931) was an Irish Nationalist poet and author, who produced more than 150 novels and poetry books. Carwithen has set Slow Spring, which describes a certain hesitancy about the season progressing too quickly. It is a perfectly wrought song, that has just the correct amount of hope and melancholy.  The final number, Echo (Who Called?), is perhaps the most remarkable. Once again by Walter de la Mare, this is imaginative and explores a soundscape far removed from some of her earlier settings. It is a case of leaving the best to last. I do hope that the sheet music for all these songs will be published soon.

It is redundant to declare that this is a superlative CD. Considering the two performers, the technical prowess of Somm Records the excellent liner notes and the imaginative and wide-ranging programme, it could be nothing else.

John France

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