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Samuel COLERIDGE-TAYLOR (1875-1912)
Heart & Hereafter - Collected Songs
Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano)
Simon Lepper (piano)
rec. November 2020, Potton Hall, Suffolk
Texts included

It’s somewhat surprising that Coleridge-Taylor’s songs have been so little explored over the years when some of his large-scale works – the Violin Concerto for example – have received competing versions. The voice, after all, was an important component of his success in his best-known popular works. So, this CD is a valuable contribution in its exploration of a wide range of his settings from 1896 to 1911, the year before his grievously early death.

In her first solo disc, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn has focused on the Six Sorrow Songs and the African Romances, whilst drawing on a selection from Songs of Sun and Shade and adding other pieces to round out a portrait of the composer’s dedication to the repertoire. She and Simon Lepper are certainly not the first to have recorded Six Sorrow Songs. Elisabetta Paglia and Christopher Howell recorded the set on a Sheva disc (review) that valuably explored a range of British composers (they also recorded A Lament, which is also included in Orchid’s disc). Coleridge-Taylor took Christina Rossetti’s poetry to set in the Six Sorrow Songs which is the cycle that drew most recorded performances on 78s, with Violet Oppenshaw having recorded When I am dead, my dearest and both Arthur Reckless and Webster Booth having recorded Unmindful of the roses. This last song is the most impressive and it was probably wise of the composer to set only three of the six stanzas. It certainly draws from both musicians some of their finest and most perceptive singing and playing. The opening song, Oh, what comes over the sea, though ending with soft resignation, has an operatically-sized equivalent in its opening section, at least in Llewelyn’s singing of it and though When I am dead my dearest has been admired by some commentators, I find it sits too easily in a salon context.

The three selected songs from Southern Love Songs unite Mediterranean exotica with Victorian fervour. Though If thou art sleeping, maiden employs the trope of piano-as-accompanying-flamenco guitar, the results are rather wan, something that I have to say applies to all three examples. Coleridge-Taylor’s association with his near contemporary Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the black American poet, saw a number of completed projects. The earliest was African Romances, a set of seven songs, notable for being all romance and no Africa. Dunbar’s lyrics are cloying and lacking in imagination and Coleridge-Taylor’s settings are, sadly, examples of dutiful Victoriana.

Big Lady Moon comes from Five Fairy Ballads (1909). This is a song that Felicity Palmer sang on disc. Try as I might – as I know others admire this brief setting (most of Coleridge-Taylor’s settings are very brief; this one lasts two minutes) – I find it stubbornly anodyne, pleasant but surface-skimming. Very different are the selected three songs from Songs of Sun and Shade where there’s a far greater sense of emotional and theatrical engagement. All were written by Radclyffe-Hall, author of The Well of Loneliness. Thou art risen, my beloved draws from the composer a sense of emotive power though, it’s true, hardly erotic languor and in Thou hast bewitched me, beloved a welcome sense of forward motion and almost Balfe-like exuberance.

There’s no question Coleridge-Taylor writes idiomatically for the voice and his piano accompaniments are always supportive, both qualities that are clear in A Lament, another Rossetti setting. Here Llewelyn fines down her tone and Simon Lepper places chords with perfectly weighted assurance.

An all-Coleridge-Taylor song album is an extreme rarity and I’m not sure there’s been another, at least a professionally produced one. Calling the disc ‘Collected Songs’, though, seems to me a misnomer; ‘Selected’, surely? The texts are all present in the thoughtfully argued booklet note and the Potton Hall recording has been extremely well judged by Patrick Allen.

In the end one asks the question; are these songs memorable? I think they are certainly part of a definable tradition in British song, but I felt Coleridge-Taylor only comes really to life when he sets the transgressive figure of Radclyffe-Hall, where the lyrics are suggestive of erotic (lesbian) longing and not, as in Rossetti, of melancholy where he inclines to the comforts of British balladry. That Coleridge-Taylor responds to Radclyffe-Hall’s challenge with a greater quotient of passion argues for an unfettering of the bounds of conciliatory tradition-conscious word setting. I wish he had done it more often in his songs but there’s no faulting the performers for it.

Jonathan Woolf

Six Sorrow Songs, Op.57 (1904)
1. Oh, what comes over the sea
2. When I am dead, my dearest
3. Oh, roses for the flush of youth
4. She sat and sang alway
5. Unmindful of the roses
6. Too late for love!
from “Southern Love Songs”, Op.12 (1896)
7. Minguillo
8. If thou art sleeping, maiden
9. Tears
African Romances, Op.17 (1897)
10. An African love song
11. A prayer
12. A starry night
13. Dawn
14. Ballad
15. Over the hills
16. How shall I woo thee
from “Five Fairy Ballads” (1909)
17. Big Lady Moon
from “Songs of Sun and Shade” (1911)
18. Thou art risen, my beloved
19. You lay so still in the sunshine
20. Thou hast bewitched me, beloved
21. A king there lived in Thule (after Goethe’s Faust) (1908)
22. A Lament (1910)
from “Six Songs”, Op.37 (1898)
23. Canoe Song
24. You’ll love me yet
25. Life and Death (1912)

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