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The Children’s Hour: Fairy Tales, Adventures, Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies
Gareth Brynmor John (baritone)
William Vann (piano)
rec. June 2018, The Music room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK
Texts and English translations included

 first encountered baritone Gareth Brynmor John as one of the soloists in the premiere recording of Stanford’s Mass Via Victrix (review). Subsequently, he further impressed me as one of the singers on a disc devoted to the music of John Sykes (review). I think this may be his first solo recital disc and he’s teamed up with William Vann who has carved out for himself a strong reputation as a choral conductor and, especially, as accompanist, the role he fulfils here.

The programme which they have put together is the sort of thing I love: a thoughtfully constructed recital around a theme, and one which includes besides some tried and trusted items some delicious surprises. The artists explain in an introductory note that both of them have two young children “and the patter (or, perhaps, stomping) of tiny feet is now part of the soundscape (cacophony) of our everyday lives”. Charles Ives’ The Children's Hour was the springboard for the design of the programme. As you’ll see from the contents list below, thereafter the recital is divided into four segments and I’ve included the segment titles so that the careful design of the programme is clear to see.

The Ives song, with its gentle outer sections, makes a good amuse-bouche. Here, Ives is in warm, affectionate mood. Gareth Brynmor John’s firm, pleasing sound makes a very favourable first impression. In the Fairy Tales and Cautionary Tales section we hear first the story of Tom der Reimer. In this pleasant ballad I admired Brynmor John’s fine legato. In the song, the eponymous hero meets the Elfenkönigin but immediately afterwards, courtesy of Schubert, we encounter Erlkönig himself. It’s good programming to follow the Loewe with the Schubert, but there’s no doubt which song is the Real Deal. In this performance of the Schubert William Vann’s exciting pianism really sets the tone while Brynmor John tells the story vividly. I like the way he differentiates the voices of the three characters without over-exaggeration. The Schumann song is charming, not least on account of Vann’s playful rendition of the piano part. Britten’s arrangement of Little Sir William is one of his earliest ventures into the genre. It’s very attractive and unlike some later examples, the piano part doesn’t feel over-arranged

There’s quite a nautical feel to Days Out and Adventures. Stanford’s original version of Drake’s Drum calls for orchestra and male-voice choir. That has extra colour but there’s a lot to be said for the solo-voice version. Gareth Brynmor John sings it very well and characterises the music nicely. He’s even more characterful in Warlock’s Captain Stratton's Fancy. It’s an ebullient song but rather more nuanced that Ivor Gurney’s setting; Brynmor John is well suited to Warlock’s song. This group includes two more offerings by Ives. Tom sails away is an extraordinary song. Dating from 1917 it’s one of the Three Songs of War and the Tom of the title is Ives’ own brother who went off to fight in the Great War. There’s a forthright middle section but it’s the poignant, dream-like music of the outer sections that leave the strongest mark. The music is almost impressionistic and here it’s performed with sensitivity by both musicians. By contrast The Circus Band represents Ives at his whackiest and most ebullient. There’s great energy in the present performance and after a day out at this particular circus it’s getting close to bedtime!

The third section, Nursery Rhymes is devoted entirely to Richard Rodney Bennett’s Songs before Sleep. This set of six songs, composed in 2002, takes texts from the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Some of the texts were familiar to me but some were not – perhaps I had too sheltered an upbringing? Though a few of them are long associated with particular tunes Bennett set all the rhymes to his own original melodies. They’re attractive songs and in his notes, Richard Stokes very rightly says that the songs “manage to combine considerable rhythmic sophistication with a child-like simplicity”. Brynmor John and Vann do them very well. My own favourite is the slow, lyrical setting of ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ which here benefits greatly from the singer’s fine legato.

Finally, Brynmor John and Vann tuck us up in bed for Lullabies and Bedtime. The two Howells settings are suitably somnolent (which I mean as a compliment). Full Moon is, in Richard Stokes’ words, “a delectable nocturne”. Fauré’s Les Berceaux is a wonderful song, steeped in melancholy; I loved Brynmor John’s sensitive account of it. Melancholy is also in evidence in Mendelssohn’s Nachtlied but the song rises to a noble climax in the last of the three stanzas of Eichendorff’s poem. The recital ends as it began with a bedtime song by Charles Ives, in this case Cradle Song. This is one of his last compositions, dating from 1919. It’s a lullaby; though musically it’s far from a straightforward lullaby, it is consoling and it’s a nice way to draw the bedroom curtains and declare ‘lights out’ at the end of this recital.

I enjoyed this recital greatly. It’s imaginatively conceived and very well executed, Gareth Brynmor John’s singing gives consistent pleasure. The voice is firmly and evenly produced with a pleasing combination of strength and warmth in the tone. Just occasionally in his vivid performance of Mahler’s Das irdische Leben I had the feeling that he was a bit over-emphatic in his highest register which slightly compromised tuning but overall, I liked what I heard very much indeed. I’ve encountered William Vann as accompanist on several discs now and I’m fast coming to the conclusion that he’s one of Britain’s foremost recital pianists. He gives Brynmor John splendid support and his playing is illuminating, varied and always catches the idiom and spirit of the song in question. These two artists seem to work as a highly effective team and I hope we shall hear them together again on disc before too long.

The production values are high. The engineering was in the hands of Dave Rowell who has done a first-class job. The recorded sound is natural and easy to listen to, while voice and piano are well balanced. The booklet contains an excellent set of notes by Richard Stokes. Texts and, where appropriate, English translations for most of the songs are provided. Unfortunately, for reasons to do with copyright, Champs Hill Records haven’t been able to reproduce the texts of seven songs. In some ways that’s a pity but on this occasion, it doesn’t matter hugely: all the songs concerned are in English and in these items and, indeed, throughout the programme Gareth Brynmor John’s diction is exemplary.

John Quinn

Charles Ives
The Children's Hour
Fairy Tales and Cautionary Tales
Carl Loewe
Tom der Reimer, op.135a
Franz Schubert
Erlkönig, op.1 D328
Robert Schumann
Der Sandmann (Liederalbum fur die Jugend, op.79, no.13)
Liza Lehmann,
Henry King
Benjamin Britten
Little Sir William (Folksong arrangements Vol.1 (7) 'British Isles', no.2)
Gustav Mahler,
Das irdische Leben (Des Knaben Wunderhorn)

Days Out and Adventures
Charles Villiers Stanford
Drake's Drum (Songs of the Sea, op.91)
Peter Warlock
Captain Stratton's Fancy
Herbert Howells
Andy Battle (A Garland for de la Mare)
Charles Ives
Tom sails away
The Circus Band

Nursery Rhymes
Richard Rodney Bennett
Songs before Sleep

Lullabies and Bedtime
Herbert Howells
Tired Tim (Peacock Pie, op.33)
Full Moon (Peacock Pie, op.33)
Gabriel Fauré
Les Berceaux op.23, no.1
Felix Mendelssohn
Nachtlied, op.71, no.6
Charles Ives
Cradle Song

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