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James Geer (tenor)
Ronald Woodley (piano)
rec. October 2020, Potton Hall, UK
Texts included SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0630 [67:59]
I don’t think I’ve encountered the tenor James Geer before. He has a strong background; he studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, Trinity College of Music, Guildhall School of Music and Drama and at what is now the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He has already built a good career on the concert platform and opera stage. He has formed a longstanding recital partnership with pianist Ronald Woodley who, in addition to his performing activities, pursued a long academic career, most recently as Professor (now Emeritus Professor) of Music at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. This is their third CD together; previously they have recorded songs by Holst and Holbrooke (review) and a warmly received disc of Walton and Lambert (review).
I was favourably disposed towards this disc before putting it into the player on account of the enterprising programme selection. The wonderful Finzi songs are well known to me and I’ve heard the little cycle by Finzi’s friend, Howard Ferguson, most recently on a marvellous SOMM disc of performances by Kathleen Ferrier (review). However, the songs by Elizabeth Maconchy and Phyllis Tate were discoveries for me - three of the songs in question are here recorded for the first time. It’s only quite recently that I’ve become acquainted with Rebecca Clarke’s songs. That was through another SOMM disc: James Gilchrist included four of them in the first instalment of his 100 Years of British Song series (review) but, happily, there’s only one duplication between Gilchrist’s choices and Geer’s selection. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s hats off to Geer and Woodley for their exploratory selection of songs.
Let’s start with the repertoire that’s likely to be most familiar to lovers of British song. Till Earth Outwears is a collection of seven settings by Gerald Finzi of poems by Thomas Hardy. The songs were composed individually between 1927 (‘The Market-Girl’) and 1956 (‘It Never Looks Like Summer’). After Finzi’s death, the songs were edited and assembled for publication by his widow, Joy, his son, Christopher and by Howard Ferguson. It’s important to note that, so far as I know, Finzi didn’t envisage them as a collection, still less a cycle, but they form a very satisfying group. James Geer’s voice is well suited to these songs; his plangent tone conveys the melancholy which pervades most of these settings. In ‘Let Me Enjoy the Earth’ both he and Ronald Woodley are very successful in responding to the extremely fluid nature of Finzi’s music; as a result, the music fits the words like a glove. I like the way that Geer puts across the exquisite lyrical melancholy of ‘In Years Defaced’, a song which dates from 1936. Arguably, the most impressive song in the set is ‘At a Lunar Eclipse’. Finzi made this setting in 1929 and it’s a fine response to Hardy’s poem. The music takes the form of a slow processional, played by the piano, over which the singer has long, plangent melodic lines, utterly characteristic of this composer. The melodic rise and fall and the harmonic language complement Hardy’s verse wonderfully. Geer and Woodley do this song – and, indeed, the whole set – very well.
It's logical to consider next the songs by Finzi’s great friend, Howard Ferguson. Discovery sets five poems by Denton Welch (1915-1948). The poems were published after his death in a collection entitled A Last Sheaf. We learn from Ronald Woodley’s booklet essay that Ferguson didn’t consider the poems to be great poetry – a verdict with which I agree. However, he set them effectively and with admirable concision. In this performance the second song, ‘The Freedom of the City’ impresses; James Geer conveys the intense, anguished emotion very well. He’s also very good in ‘Babylon’. This still, slow setting demands very controlled singing and Geer delivers the goods, doing justice to the melancholy of both words and music. He makes a fine job, too, of the concluding song, ‘Discovery’, not least in the way he follows the musical and emotional change of gear to convey the sense of determination in Ferguson’s setting of the poem’s last four lines.
The Rebecca Clarke group contains some discoveries as far as I’m concerned. Chief among them is her Blake setting, ‘Tiger, Tiger’. This song is full of dramatic contrasts. It’s a daring, powerful response to the poem; indeed, the first time I played the disc I hit the replay button as soon as this song was over. A good deal of the music’s power comes from the very bass-heavy piano part in several of the verses (I do not use the term ‘bass-heavy’ in a derogatory sense). My one reservation about this performance is that I’m not convinced that James Geer really displays the vocal resources to match the incremental power of the music in the first four verses; to my ears, the voice doesn’t open up enough.
He is successful in the two preceding Blake settings, ‘Infant Joy’ and ‘Cradle Song’. In both cases, Clarke’s setting has an air of sophisticated innocence which I find very appropriate. Her setting of Yeats’ poem ‘The Cloths of Heaven’ is sensitive and attractive. It doesn’t quite dislodge my affection for Thomas Dunhill’s lovely setting of the same poem, but maybe that’s because Rebecca Clarke’s song is, at present, less familiar to me. ‘The Seal Man’ is a highly original song; a telling and dramatic setting of a prose passage by John Masefield. I think James Geer communicates the song very well – and Ronald Woodley’s atmospheric piano playing is a decided asset to the performance. That said, I didn’t find Geer’s narration as compelling as that of James Gilchrist, whose recording I referenced earlier. Gilchrist deploys a wider range of vocal colours and, for me, he also scores with his much more effective way with the pauses in the song; that’s probably a question of greater experience.
All the songs by Elizabeth Maconchy were new to me. Her setting of John Donne’s ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ is claimed as a first recording but, without wishing to seem pedantic, I’m not sure that’s completely accurate. The song is one of three settings of words by Donne and all three of them are included on a new disc – also issued by SOMM – by James Gilchrist and Nathan Williamson. I’ve not yet heard that disc but I see from the review by my colleague John France that those sessions took place in July 2020, some three months before Geer and Woodley made their recording. However, their version was issued first. The full set of three Donne songs dates from 1965 but ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ precedes the other two songs; it was written in 1959. Ronald Woodley comments in the booklet that Donne’s verse “is beautifully captured by the arching, searching vocal line, underpinned by an essentially tonal but ever-shifting, questioning accompaniment”. It would be idle of me to pretend I can better that description; all I would say is that Geer and Woodley’s performance vindicates that judgement. The next two songs, ‘Have You Seen but a Bright Lily Grow?’ and ‘A Meditation for his Mistress’, were penned some three decades earlier and Ronald Woodley plausibly suggests that they form a kind of homage to the Elizabethan and Stuart lute song. Both are very attractive and they’re nicely done here.
The second Maconchy group is devoted to her Four Shakespeare Songs. Three of these date from 1965; the outlier is the third song, ‘Take, O Take Those Lips Away’, which was written in 1956. These are not songs which give up their secrets easily. Part of that, I think, may be due to the fact that, as Ronald Woodley suggests, these songs “take us into a very different harmonic world” by comparison with those two songs from the 1920s. The harmonic idiom is more European than one is accustomed to hearing in many English songs – Woodley cites the influence of Bartók – but whilst not disagreeing with that, as a personal reaction I think Maconchy has an individual view of Shakespeare. That’s particularly true, I think, in the two lighter songs. The second song, ‘The Wind and the Rain’ is unlike other settings of this text that I’ve heard in that, whilst some wit is displayed, the music lacks, to my ears, surface charm. The final song, ‘King Stephen’ may have vitality but, to be frank, it didn’t display much of a sense of fun.’ Come Away, Death’, the first song, has very intense harmonic language, arguably too intense. ‘Take, O Take Those Lips Away’, the earliest of the quartet, is spare and anguished. I’m sure the fault is mine and that others will find more in these songs than I did but, despite the care which these performers lavish upon them, I’m afraid they left me fairly cold.
I’d not heard the Phyllis Tate songs before. Two of them, ‘The Falcon’ and ‘Cradle Song’ here receive their first recordings. ‘The Falcon’ sets the familiar medieval English text also known as the Corpus Christi Carol. Tate gives the words a very stark, spare setting which really suits the mood of the poem. Her music compels concentration in the listener, as does the present performance which achieves the necessary degree of tension. In ‘Cradle Song’ Phyllis Tate sets the same William Blake poem that we heard earlier in the recital from the pen of Rebecca Clarke. Tate’s approach to the poem is charming and fresh but spiced with some gentle astringency in the harmonies. ‘Epitaph’, which closes the recital, is a setting of the famous poem by Sir Walter Raleigh which begins ‘Even such is time’. This is a memorable song, which deserves to be much better known. Ronald Woodley rightly describes the music as “quietly understated”, though the vocal line is powerful towards the end before a subdued piano postlude. For the most part, though, the song is gently eloquent, chiming in with Raleigh’s expression of melancholy and regret. I liked this song a lot.
There’s much to admire and enjoy here, both in terms of the chosen repertoire and the performances. James Geer has an attractive voice and he sings with clarity of diction and an obviously sincere response to both the words and the music. My one concern is a degree of sameness about the sound of the voice; I’d have liked to experience a rather wider range of vocal colours but maybe that’s all to do with the choice of songs. He benefits from Ronald Woodley’s skilled and empathetic pianism.
Woodley’s notes are excellent; he provides just the sort of informed guidance that one needs when listening to repertoire which may be unfamiliar. Producer/engineer Andrew Hallifax has recorded the performers very well.
Contents Howard FERGUSON (1908-1999)
Discovery (1952) [8:29] Rebecca CLARKE (1886-1979)
The Seal Man (1922) [5:21]
The Cloths of Heaven (c 1912, publ 192o) [2:07]
The Cherry-Blossom Wand (1927) [2:56]
Infant Joy (c 1913, publ 1924) [1:09]
Cradle Song (1929) [2:27]
Tiger, Tiger (1929) [4:20] Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994)
A Hymn to God the Father (1959) [3:19]
Have You Seen but a Bright Lily Grow? (1929) [1:38]
A Meditation for his Mistress (1928) [2:45] Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Till Earth Outwears Op 19a (publ 1958) [16:51] Elizabeth MACONCHY
Four Shakespeare Songs (1956 & 1965) [8:37] Phyllis TATE (1911-1987)
The Falcon (publ 1948) [3:12]
Cradle Song (publ 1935) [1:59]
Epitaph (1948) [2:53]