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Proud Songsters - English Solo Song
Michael Chance, Tim Mead, Lawrence Zazzo (counter-tenors)Ruairi Bowen, James Gilchrist, Andrew Staples (tenors); Christopher Keyte, Mark Stone (baritones); Gerald Finley, Ashley Riches (bass-baritones)
Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. October 2019 & February 2020, All Saint’s Church, East Finchley, London.
Texts included

I imagine that the Covid restrictions that have persisted for the last year or more in the UK have made it difficult, if not impossible, for the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge to make any new recordings for their in-house label. Happily, here’s an album, recorded before lockdown, that not only plugs that gap but which is also a splendid idea in its own right. No less than nine of the college’s former Choral Scholars, all of whom are currently pursuing important solo careers, have got together with the pianist, Simon Lepper, himself a King’s alumnus, to record a collection of English songs. Actually, a tenth former Choral Scholar also makes an appearance. The keen-eyed will have spotted the name of Christopher Keyte. He was a member of Boris Ord’s choir – and a contemporary of Robert Tear, I think – and, though I’m sure he’s now retired from the concert platform after a distinguished career, he makes an appearance here on a bonus track. He joins his son-in-law, Gerald Finley to sing Landon Ronald’s O lovely night.

Ashley Riches launches the proceedings with Denis Browne’s To Gratiana Dancing and Singing. Browne perished in World War I, leaving only a few compositions, including a handful of fine songs. What a waste his early death was. To Gratiana Dancing and Singing is the best-known of his songs. Riches sings it very well. In fact, the only thing that gave me pause for thought is that Simon Lepper consistently spreads the chords in the piano accompaniment. I can’t recall hearing it done this way before – it’s not marked as such in my copy of the music – and I have to say I don’t much care for it; the gesture seems to rob the piano part of its graceful poise. I should hasten to say, though, that you won’t find me criticising any other aspect of Lepper’s perceptive contribution to this disc. Riches also sings Linden Lea, in an excellent performance which benefits from his firm, clear vocal production. Later in the programme I enjoyed very much his rendition of Gurney’s ebullient I will go with my father a-ploughing.

Tim Mead offers The Salley Gardens which is the very first of Britten’s long line of folksong arrangements. It’s unusual in my experience to hear a counter-tenor in this song. Though Mead’s performance is very good I have to admit that this type of voice wouldn’t be my first choice for the song. Mead returns later in the programme with Howells’ wonderful King David. Again, I wouldn’t normally associate the counter-tenor voice with this repertoire but Mead’s plangent timbre works very well, conveying the king’s melancholy in an eloquent way. I liked his expressive performance. Another counter-tenor, Michael Chance, makes his sole appearance in My love gave me an apple by Celia Harper. It’s the only unaccompanied item in this collection and I don’t recall hearing this before, though in the notes we learn that it also exists in a version entitled Celtic Blessing with three additional vocal parts. In the version for solo voice it sounds like a folk song, though not only the melody but also the words are by the composer. It makes a strong appeal, especially in Michael Chance’s haunting performance.

The third counter-tenor is the American, Lawrence Zazzo. He concentrates on contemporary selections. I was delighted that he includes three of the songs from Jonathan Dove’s 1995 cycle to words by Vikram Seth, All You Who Sleep Tonight. I know this cycle from a very fine recital disc by the mezzo, Kitty Whately on which, by a pleasing symmetry, the pianist is once again Simon Lepper (review). It’s very interesting to hear these eloquent songs sung by a male voice and I was seriously impressed by Zazzo’s searingly intense performance. His other choice is ‘Feste (Come away, death)’. This is one of the songs in Iain Bell’s Shakespearian cycle, These Motley Fools (2014) which Zazzo himself commissioned. The vocal line has something of a florid nature while the highly independent piano part is rather jagged. I have to admit that, unlike the Dove songs, it’s not really to my taste.

Three tenors contribute to the programme. Ruairi Bowen offers I wandered lonely as a cloud by Eric Thiman, a song previously unknown to me. This is a setting of Wordsworth’s famous lines. Bowen’s voice is fairly light and sappy but there’s a welcome touch of steel too. I think this song suits him and he sings it very well. I’ve previously heard Andrew Staples primarily in large-scale concert works, notably some by Elgar; it’s good to experience him in songs. ‘The Sigh’ is a lovely Hardy setting from Finzi’s cycle A Young Man’s Exhortation. Staples’ clear, plangent timbre strikes me as being very well suited to Finzi’s music and I enjoyed his rendition of this song very much. I was equally impressed with ‘Since she whom I loved’, one of Britten’s Holy Sonnets of John Donne. Here, Staples deploys a fine range of dynamics and vocal colours in a committed performance.

From James Gilchrist we hear Quilter’s Fear no more the heat o’ the sun. This is a very good song, though I don’t believe it matches Finzi’s response to the same Shakespeare text. Gilchrist’s expressive singing will not disappoint. Had I been writing this review just a few weeks ago I would have said that Rebecca Clarke’s The Seal Man was unknown to me. However, I discovered it recently, thanks to another song CD, also by James Gilchrist. His collection of British songs on the SOMM Recordings label included four songs by Clarke (review). This 1922 setting of words by John Masefield is an extraordinarily intense creation. Both of Gilchrist’s recordings are superb. It was intriguing to compare the two. The King’s recording is slightly more closely balanced, which adds to the impression of intensity. On the other hand, in Gilchrist’s SOMM recording he seems to make fractionally more of the pauses that occur at certain points in the piece and perhaps that’s a reason why the SOMM version seems even more daring. Which one was the first to be recorded, I wonder? Both of his performances of this song are superb and if you buy this present disc and are as taken by this music and performance as I am, I hope it will encourage you to experience more Rebecca Clarke songs by seeking out his SOMM disc.

Baritone Mark Stone contributes three songs. Coincidentally, I’ve heard him sing both Frank Bridge’s Come to me in my dreams and Quilter’s Go, lovely rose on disc before. These two songs are included on a 2008 recital of miscellaneous English songs which is well worth seeking out (review). The Bridge song was written in 1906, though revised in 1918. It’s an impressive composition and the present performance is suitably impassioned at times. Stone has recorded quite a lot of Quilter, so he has good credentials when it comes to that composer’s songs. I liked his account of Go, lovely rose, a quintessential example of Quilter’s art. I was glad to hear him, too, in Warlock’s Sleep. I think Gurney’s setting of the same poem is unmatched but Warlock’s take on John Fletcher’s words is notable and Mark Stone does it very well.

The last contributor to be considered is the Canadian bass-baritone, Gerald Finley. Hearing him in this context, linked to Cambridge, reminded me that the first time I came across his name was well over 30 years ago when he sang a couple of small solos on a 1985 album of Christmas music by John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers (still available on the Collegium label CSCD 510). That, I imagine, would have been not long after his time as a Choral Scholar at King’s. Here, we can enjoy his fully mature voice in rather more substantial fare. In Finzi’s Proud Songsters Finley’s burnished tone and his care for the words are both important factors in a memorable performance. So, too, is the expert way in which Simon Lepper plays the important piano part. We also hear Finley in one of the best-loved of all English songs, Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon. This song suits Finley’s gifts to a tee; he displays effortless elegance in a superb performance. After a gap of several seconds Finley returns to partner his father-in-law, Christopher Keyte in the bonus track, Landon Ronald’s O lovely night. With the passage of the years Keyte’s voice is no longer in peak condition but he still more than holds his own with his distinguished son-in-law. What a nice idea it was to bridge the generations of the King’s Collage Choral Scholars in this way.

This is a richly entertaining disc. You could argue that it doesn’t necessarily hang together as a programme in the way that a recital disc by one singer would do. However, surely that’s not the point of this undertaking. Instead, what’s on offer here is, firstly, a glimpse of just some of the many King’s Choral Scholars who have gone on to have important solo careers and, secondly, a nicely varied and discerningly chosen selection from the treasure trove of English song. All of the singers involved sing splendidly and they all benefit from Simon Lepper’s perceptive and supportive pianism. The recordings have been nicely managed by engineer Dave Rowell; he has achieved a very good balance between the singers and the piano. The album’s very good documentation includes an interesting essay by Finzi biographer, Stephen Banfield. Whoever had the idea of bringing all these artists together for this imaginative project deserves a bow. Might it be too much to hope for that something similar might be attempted again in the future?

John Quinn

William Denis Browne (1888-1915) To Gratiana Dancing and Singing (Ashley Riches)
Trad. arr. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) The Salley Gardens (Tim Mead)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) Linden Lea (Ashley Riches)
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) The Sigh (Andrew Staples)
Celia Harper (b 1945) My love gave me an apple (Michael Chance)
Roger Quilter (1877-1953) Fear no more the heat o’ the sun (James Gilchrist)
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) Come to me in my dreams (Mark Stone)
Eric Thiman (1900-1975) I wandered lonely as a cloud (Ruairi Bowen)
Jonathan Dove (b 1959) All You Who Sleep Tonight (Lawrence Zazzo)
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) The Seal Man (James Gilchrist)
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) I will go with my father a-ploughing (Ashley Riches)
Gerald Finzi Proud Songsters (Gerald Finley)
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) King David (Tim Mead)
Benjamin Britten Since she whom I loved (Andrew Staples)
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) Sleep (Mark Stone)
Iain Bell (b 1980) Feste (Come away, death) (Lawrence Zazzo)
Roger Quilter Go, lovely rose (Mark Stone)
Ralph Vaughan Williams Silent Noon (Gerald Finley)
Landon Ronald (1873-1938) O lovely night (Gerald Finley & Christopher Keyte)

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