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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 found a great deal to admire in Volume 1 of this planned series of three discs, not least the approach to repertoire (review). Consequently, I was glad to receive the next instalment in the series. In fact, the musical choices that James Gilchrist and Nathan Williamson have made this time round are, if anything, more enterprising. Though I love the English Song repertoire, many of the songs included here were new to me.

A Leave-Taking is one of five song cycles that William Alwyn composed towards the end of his life. All seven songs are settings of poems by the English poet and botanist, John Warren, Lord de Tabley (1835-95). In his valuable booklet essay, Nathan Williamson describes the poems which Alwyn selected as “unremitting in their sense of loneliness and loss”. He’s quite right and, furthermore, the highly chromatic musical language that Alwyn employed in his settings not only responds to, but also emphasises the mood of the poems. So, for example, in the second song, ‘Daffodils’, both words and music speak of a sense of desperation and dashed hopes. The song which follows, ‘The Ocean Wood’ begins calmly – the second stanza is especially calm – but thereafter poet and composer wrack up the anguish and the song’s ending is very chilly. ‘Fortune’s Wheel’ has something of a rollicking folk song to it, but even here the chromatic harmonies more than hint at darkness below the surface and the conclusion of the song is distinctly unhappy. The penultimate song, ‘The Two Old Kings’, is a fine composition. In this piece two elderly monarchs contemplate the end of their lives and their past reigns. Finally, the slow-moving ‘A Leave-Taking’ is quite simple in terms of musical conception but intensely eloquent.

James Gilchrist’s plangent tone is well suited to these songs; he communicates them very strongly. However, as the cycle unfolded, I found myself wishing that Alwyn had found a way of varying the mood, perhaps through the inclusion of a different poem; something lighter in spirit would have been more than welcome and the contrast would have been beneficial. Nathan Williamson says of A Leave-Taking that it is “undoubtedly one of Alwyn’s finest compositional achievements”. I’m not entirely sure I agree; I find more variety and contrast in his orchestral output, not least the symphonies. However, the cycle is impressive, even if I found it easier to admire the songs than to love them.

Prison Cycle is an interesting concept; it’s a joint venture between Alan Bush and Alan Rawsthorne. I learned from the notes that the songs were composed in 1939 at the request of the Free German League of Culture, an organisation of German exiles from the Nazi regime. The cycle sets three poems by the German socialist Ernst Toller (1893-1939) who was imprisoned by the Nazis; he took his own life in May 1939. Three poems are set but there are five songs. The reason for the discrepancy is that songs 1, 3 and 5 all use the same short poem about a prisoner pacing his cell; as Nathan Williamson says, it’s a kind of ritornello, though the music is different each time. Bush set it twice and Rawsthorne’s setting is the third piece in the cycle. Each composer wrote one of the even numbered songs. The ritornello settings all illustrate in different ways the futile tramping of the confined man. The second song (by Bush) sets a poem in which Toller contemplates and, in some cases, takes comfort from the mundane items in his cell. The lightest song, relatively speaking, is the fourth one (Rawsthorne). In this poem the prisoner looks at two swallows through the window of his cell. Inevitably, given the subject matter and the nature of the poems, which are sung in the original German, this short cycle is rather oppressive in tone. I can’t say I was greatly taken with it, despite the fine advocacy from Gilchrist and Williamson

Two independent songs by Rawsthorne follow. These are settings of poems by John Fletcher (1579-1625). The first, ‘Away, Delights’ sets a poem which is typical of the genre of anguished Elizabethan love poems. Rawsthorne’s chromatic language nicely complements the sentiments of the poem. ‘God Lyaeus’ is a short, lively and ebullient song, which provides excellent contrast.

Not long ago, I reviewed a disc, also issued by SOMM, by tenor James Geer and pianist Ronald Woodley. This included what was claimed as the first recording of Elizabeth Maconchy’s song ‘A Hymn to God the Father’. The point is arguable, because the sessions for this Gilchrist/Williamson disc took place earlier. However, what is beyond question is that on this disc we get the first recording of the Three Donne Songs, of which ‘A Hymn to God the Father’ is the first. John Donne’s poem is an introspective confessional to which Maconchy responds splendidly in an intense setting. James Gilchrist’s plangent delivery seems well-nigh ideal. It’s good to be able to hear also the two companion settings. ‘A Hymn to Christ’ is a poem packed with intense imagery and Maconchy echoes the imagery in her music. Donne’s tortured devotion is mirrored in the anguished music. Here, the chromaticism really enhances the words. Finally, ‘The Sun Rising’ is set to music that features irregular, explosive rhythms. The highly energised music is very different in character from what we’ve heard in the other two songs. Perhaps the style makes me feel that this isn’t as obviously eloquent a song? This is a considerable set of songs and it’s great that they should receive such committed advocacy for their first appearance on disc as a set.

Having opened the programme with songs by William Alwyn, it’s a pleasingly piece of symmetry to conclude with seven songs by his former pupil, Doreen Carwithen. She moved to Suffolk with Alwyn in 1961, marrying him in 1975. These songs are all early works and represent her complete solo song output: all are here recorded for the first time. No composition dates are provided in the booklet and I was unable to discover that information for myself on line; it’s a pity that the background to these compositions is so hard to trace.

I enjoyed these seven songs very much. Not only are they intrinsically good but also, in the context of this programme, they offer a welcome lightness of touch. That lightness is evident in ‘Serenade’, a setting of lines by Philip Sidney (1554-1586). The next three songs are all settings of de la Mare. I like the gentle and beautifully fashioned ‘Noon’. The third of this trio of songs is ‘The Ride-by-Nights’ I think there’s a case to be made that the music isn’t as dark as the subject matter warrants but it’s still an attractive song. ‘Clear Had the Day Been’ sets words by Michael Drayton (1563-1631); there’s a winning fluency in both the vocal line and the piano part. In ‘Slow Spring’ Carwithen takes words by Katharine Tynan (1859-1931) and fashions them into a spacious song, the music to which is beautiful and very poised. The performances of all seven songs are exemplary. This is a long-overdue recorded debut for Doreen Carwithen’s songs and I hope these performances will heighten awareness of these excellent pieces.

All the composers represented here have been exceptionally well served by James Gilchrist and Nathan Williamson. Not only are the performances out of the top drawer but the enterprising selection of the programme is commendable, albeit I wish that it hadn’t just been left to Doreen Carwithen to supply a lighter note. Given the degree of angst in the programme, this is probably a disc to dip into rather than to play through as a recital.

Paul Arden-Taylor has recorded the performers expertly. The documentation is first class; I learned a lot from Nathan Williamson’s excellent notes.

John Quinn

Previous review: John France

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