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Ina BOYLE (1889-1967) Songs
Paula Murrihy (mezzo-soprano); Robin Tritschler (tenor); Ben McAteer (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. 29 October 2020, Wigmore Hall, London.
Texts included DELPHIAN DCD34264 [77:23]
I’m ashamed to say that I had been ignorant of the music of the Irish composer Ina Boyle until this CD arrived. However, I recall that Rob Barnett was impressed by a disc of her orchestral music a little while ago (review). In fact, Rob subsequently selected that CD as one of his Recordings of the Year for 2018. A few of her shorter pieces have featured on miscellaneous discs, I see, including the Walter de la Mare songs and Sleep Song, included in this present programme (review). However, Boyle and her music may be unknown to some of our readers so a little background is in order, for which I’m indebted to Orla Shannon’s booklet essay.
Ina Boyle, the daughter of a Church of Ireland minister, was born in the rural area of Enniskerry, County Wicklow. It appears that she spent most of her life at the family home and Orla Shannon identifies this isolated life in the remote Irish countryside as one reason why her music didn’t make a great deal of headway. She had some private tuition in Dublin and also lessons by correspondence with Charles Wood. Most significantly, perhaps, from 1923 onwards she used to travel to London for periodic lessons with Vaughan Williams, though the outbreak of war interrupted that tuition. A number of her works achieved success in competitions – her first success came at a festival in Sligo in 1913 when she won two prizes, one for her song The Last Invocation. Getting her works performed was another matter, however. I’m sure Orla Shannon is right to suggest that her gender was a problem in what was still a male-dominated profession. Furthermore, she had a very diffident personality and didn’t engage in self-promotion. Vaughan Williams wrote to her: ‘I think it is very courageous of you to go on with such little recognition. The only thing to say is that it does come finally’.
Her output included a symphony and a violin concerto, both of which are included on the CD of orchestral music referenced above, other orchestral works and some seventy songs. That means that the present disc covers about half her contribution to the
art song genre. Boyle ranged quite widely in her choice of texts and, as we shall see, her songs contain a few surprises. There’s a good deal of consistency in the songs, though, in the sense that this selection demonstrates an unfailing melodic gift, interesting harmonies and a sensitivity to the words Boyle has chosen to set.
Th programme opens auspiciously with two contrasting songs sung by Robin Tritschler. Since thou, O fondest and truest is a lovely, lyrical composition, the sensitivity of which put me in mind of Finzi. Tritschler sings that song most expressively and then brings an ideally ringing tone to the eager The Joy of Earth. In that song the rippling piano part adds to the sense of urgent eagerness.
I mentioned surprises. The second of the three de la Mare settings is ‘The Pigs and the Charcoal Burner’, which seems a most odd choice to set to music. However, Ina Boyle’s music helps to tell the story very well, as does Ben McAteer’s singing. The following de la Mare poem, ‘Moon, Reeds, Rushes’, offers McAteer an early opportunity to display his lyrical legato capabilities, which are considerable.
We first encounter Paula Murrihy in A Mountain Woman Asks for Quiet. This is a very expressive slow song and Murrihy’s lovely tone is ideally suited to it. Her top register is tested by ‘All Souls’ Night’ and she rises to the challenge splendidly. That is one of four songs in the late collection entitled Looking Back. These songs use texts by a variety of poets and, in this instance, they’re shared between the three singers.
The programme includes a few songs that are very specifically Irish in nature. Himself and his Fiddle is one such. The music has a folk-like lilt to it and Paula Murrihy sings it most attractively. Robin Tritschler is allocated A soft day, thank God! Ina Boyle takes a more urgent approach to the text as compared with Stanford’s famous setting. I have to say that on balance I prefer Stanford’s way with the poem but perhaps that’s due to my greater familiarity with it. Tritschler is also on hand to sing The Stolen Child. This Yeats poem is concerned with an other-worldly Irish fairy tale. The music is light footed, calling for a nimble delivery by both singer and pianist; that’s exactly what it receives here. Sleep Song takes a traditional Irish text (in English translation) which Boyle makes into a touching song, very expressively sung by Paula Murrihy
Let me go back to Ina Boyle’s ability to surprise the listener. Her set of Two Christmas Songs definitely surprises. The first is ‘So blyssed be the tyme’, a setting of a medieval English text. There’s no conventional Christmas joy here. Instead, Boyle provides a slow setting which is darkly melancholic, at least until the final stanza. It’s sung with great expression by Paula Murrihy. The title of ‘Tyrle, tyrlow, tyrle, tyrlow’ might lead you to expect a merry setting with a catchy refrain, as provided by Peter Warlock in his choral setting. Boyle, however, takes a serious approach and the result is a big song which Murrihy and Burnside perform very well indeed.
One of the highlights for me is the setting of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem Have you news of my boy Jack? The song dates from 1916, just a year after the poem was published. It’s performed here as a duet by Murrihy and McAteer. Ina Boyle does full justice to the poignancy of Kipling’s poetry and she also rises to the challenge of setting the conclusion to music of genuine nobility. Impressive also is the collection of Five Sacred Folksongs of Sicily, which are set in English translation. These are entrusted to Ben McAteer who makes a fine job of them. For me, these songs rather stand out from the rest of the programme in that they plumb an even greater depth of seriousness. In saying that, I don’t mean to belittle the other songs but, rather, to draw attention to the quality of Boyle’s musical response to these five texts. Mind you, All Souls’ Flower is another highly impressive piece. It’s a really lovey strophic song. Paula Murrihy sings it beautifully, really communicating the sentiment of the poem. I should also mention The Last Invocation with which Boyle achieved an early success, as I mentioned earlier. It’s a Whitman setting and the words clearly struck a chord with Ina Boyle who set them with genuine eloquence. Robin Tritschler puts it across marvellously.
I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect when I received this disc but I’ve been delightfully surprised. Here is a composer of art songs of genuine worth. There isn’t a single dud in the programme. I’m aware that Ina Boyle lived in what was, from the 1920s, the Republic of Ireland but I hope I’ll be excused if I say that her songs strike me as being very firmly in the tradition of British song. Furthermore, now that this CD has given us the opportunity to hear them, I think we can safely say that Ina Boyle’s songs are a genuine enhancement to the genre and tradition of British song. I count them as a significant discovery and I hope that other musicians will be inspired to take them up.
Ina Boyle could scarcely have wished for better advocacy than her songs receive here. I suspect that Iain Burnside was the driving force behind the project, as he has been so often in the past. He has joined forces here with a fine trio of singers – fittingly, all three of them are Irish. The singing is first rate throughout, as is Burnside’s pianism; all four musicians demonstrate complete commitment to the cause. It’s worth saying that the artists and Delphian took advantage of a very brief window of opportunity during the Covid emergency in 2020 and set down these songs in a single day. They recorded 33 songs in just five hours, which is an amazingly short time; one would normally expect at least double that amount of time, if not more. Yet nothing about the results suggests undue haste. These are mature and excellent performances and, furthermore they have been expertly recorded by producer Paul Baxter and engineer Darius Weinberg.
As is usual with Delphian, the documentation is excellent. Orla Shannon’s essay is full of information about this unfamiliar composer. I have two small quibbles. I wish Ms Shannon had written a bit more about the music itself and also, it’s a pity that the dates of composition of each song were not included. That information is always helpful in placing music in the context of a composer’s career. For example, I wonder if Boyle ever showed her George Herbert setting, Longing, to Vaughan Williams. Now that I know – thanks to the website of the Ina Boyle Society - she composed it two years after she began taking lessons from him it seems entirely possible that she might have done. It’s an eloquent setting; I wonder what the composer of Five Mystical Songs might have made of it; I hope he was impressed, as I was.
This excellent disc contains about half of Ina Boyle’s songs. I do hope that the artists will go back and record the rest at some future date. Until that happens, these excellent performances give a fine overview of the work of a song composer of genuine worth.
Since thou, O fondest and truest (1924) [1:56]
The Joy of Earth (1914) [2:03]
Three Songs by Walter de la Mare (1954-56) [5:58]
A Mountain Woman Asks for Quiet (1925) [2:12]
Looking Back (1960s) [5:56]
Himself and his Fiddle (1929) [2:43]
Have you news of my boy Jack? (1916) [3:03]
Roses (1909) [1:53]
A soft day, thank God! (1912) [1:30]
Eternity (1924) [1:53]
Sleep Song (1923) [2:42]
All Souls’ Flower (1928) [3:14]
Five Sacred Folksongs of Sicily (1930) [8:29]
A Song of Shadows (1922) [2:31]
A Song of Enchantment (1922) [2:55]
The Bringer of Dreams (1925) [3:53]
Longing (1925) [2:17]
Dust (1933) [1:08]
The Stolen Child (1925) [3:34]
Blessing (1928) [1:46]
They Went Forth (1925) [2:34]
Two Christmas Songs (1923-24) [9:25]
The Last Invocation (1913) [2:37]