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Gibbs songs SRCD2400
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Armstrong GIBBS (1899-1960)
The Songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano)
Nathan Vale (tenor)
Adrian Farmer (piano)
rec. 2020/2021, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
LYRITA SRCD2400 [4 CDs: 220:12]

A good many of the composers of the British musical renaissance at the beginning of the twentieth century were comparatively late developers (both Holst and Vaughan Williams, for example) but even by their standards Armstrong Gibbs came to a musical career very late. Indeed, he might well have settled down to a comfortable existence as a provincial schoolmaster (he was the heir to the Gibbs pharmaceutical business) had it not been for Sir Adrian Boult, who sponsored him at the age of thirty to undertake compositional studies with Vaughan Williams. During the 1920s he rapidly established himself as a writer of songs, showing a particular affection for the poetry of Walter de la Mare; and in his later years he was heavily involved in various administrative and educational duties as well as continuing to compose choral and orchestral works, although the BBC rejected his attempt in Mr Cornelius to write a successful comic opera.

After his death in 1960 his music seems to have fallen into almost complete obscurity, with the solitary exception of his slow waltz Dusk from his suite Fancy Dress, which continued to feature on discs of light classics, and a couple of songs espoused by various recitalists. In more recent years we have been supplied with recordings of all three of his symphonies (written in the 1930s and 1940s), a complete disc of his music for string orchestra, and a couple of CD recitals of selected songs. These latter tended to concentrate on his earlier de la Mare settings, and it is therefore most valuable here to discover a whole raft of later songs written to lyrics by other writers.

The literary star of Walter de la Mare, highly popular and fashionable in the years up to 1950, also seems to have gone behind a cloud since that date – for no very obvious reason. Maybe his sheer erstwhile popularity has told against him; but even his best-known poems such as The listeners (also set by Gibbs as a part-song for male voices, and very effectively too) have a disturbing undercurrent of symbolism that can easily be overlooked by more jaded or scornful critics. The fact that so much of his verse was either aimed at young readers, or was on the subject of childhood, may have given a false impression of facility or simplicity; but Gibbs, always concerned with the meaning of words, clearly found depths in the poetry that was productive of inspiration. Indeed, many of his later settings featured settings of verses by friends, neighbours and acquaintances of no great literary merit, but some of these also struck a chord with the composer and inspired some very beautiful settings. And then again, he was not afraid of the challenge of setting great poetry – Hardy, Masefield, Blake as well as the decidedly odd Sir Walter Mordaunt Currie (also involved in the Odysseus Symphony) all feature on these discs, apart from the expected Elizabethan classics (although no Shakespeare). Several of the 107 songs included here were unpublished, and have now been made available from Nimbus Music Publishing; so this set appears to be as close as we are likely ever to come to a complete survey of Gibbs’s output of songs (Michael Hurd totals them as 162, presumably including juvenilia), and as such it is most welcome in its own right.

It might have been expected that the four discs would follow the trajectory of Gibbs’s career as a song writer from his unpublished Longfellow setting The rainy day in 1914 to Fletcher’s Evening in summer in 1959; but here Adrian Farmer, who devised and edited this project, took the entirely sensible decision to group the settings into four semi-independent recitals, one on each disc, shared between two singers for the sake of variety. Since however the detailed track listing supplies us with the dates for each song, it is easy to discern a pattern in Gibbs’s development from the fairly conventional style of his earliest settings to a more uneasy and innovative streak which enters into many of the songs from 1930 onwards. This is immediately apparent with the very opening song (CD1, track 1) To Anise with its modal accompaniment, and even more so with the illustrative setting of the words “There sings a nightingale” at the end of the following Mistletoe (track 2). And on this same disc entitled About lovers we find a truly beautiful melody for Love’s wisdom (track 7), a heart-rendingly desolate penultimate verse in A Ballad-Maker (track 8), dappled shifting piano harmonies in Titania (track 11), and in Chloris in the Snow (track 15) a chill which reminds the listener of the winter on Vaughan Williams’s Bredon Hill in his cycle On Wenlock Edge. There are also, it must be admitted, a couple of real duds, when Gibbs seems to be seeking a Warlock-like sense of jollity and instead produces galumphing Elizabethan pastiche, as in Lily-bright and shine-a (track 14) or Down in yonder meadow (track 16). One gets the impression that Gibbs did not do Falstaffian jollity very well, or at least with any sense of conviction. The disc also includes a vocal setting of the slow waltz Dusk with an unattributed lyric (by the composer himself?) of mind-numbing banality (track 22). Generally, however, one notes that Gibbs pays especial attention to the lyrics he sets, and the results pay dividends.

The second disc consists of Song Groups and Cycles, and these are arranged in their order of composition with only the first set to words by de la Mare. This early cycle is split between the two singers; The linnet (CD2, track 2) flutters delicately, but the remainder lack distinctiveness even when the final cadences of The mountains (track 3) betray an unexpected twist. The five brief songs of Gray and Gold are all allocated to the male voice, despite their female authorship; they too lack variety of mood or colour, ringing instead variations of a similar harmonic pattern. But fifteen years later the cycle A voice in the dusk to words by John Irvine is more arresting, and In the Faery Hills (track 13) conjures the requisite haunted twilight enchantingly. The cycle of Jacobean poems Old wine in new bottles returns us to the realm of Warlockian roisterings, again without much sense of real involvement; but the cycle Joan of Arc is of a different order altogether. It brings a real sense of dramatic skill and pacing (with some very Wagnerian writing for the piano) and a theme of proper majesty which rises to a real sense of triumph in the final death scene (track 23) and seems to call for a full-scale heroic soprano to match. Another John Irvine cycle, Willow leaves, avoid obvious orientalisms in its treatment of Chinese subject-matter, but it retains a pentatonic cast in places and The dancing girl (track 25) has a poised sense of delicacy. Both here and in Meeting with friends (track 26) some passages of parlando maintain a sense of mystery. And the final three settings of Christina Rossetti show that even in his final decade Gibbs’s feeling for verse did not desert him. The poem A birthday (track 28) is our old friend “My love is like a singing bird”, and Gibbs’s setting is a fair challenge to other and more famous settings of the same text.

The third disc contains Narrative Songs and casts its net very wide indeed. Surprisingly the very early and unpublished The rainy day (CD 3, track 5) sounds well in advance of its 1914 date, while equally oddly the Hardy setting Lyonesse (track 6) quite closely anticipates that of Finzi in the latter’s Earth and air and rain written some ten years later – largely the inevitable result, of course, of the poet’s somewhat quixotic rhythms. The funereal tread of Slow, horses, slow (track 8) has a real sense of gravity, as do the Delian mists of On Duncton Hill (track 9). The later The Ballad of Semmerwater (track 2) is delivered with drama by Nathan Gunn, despite some evident difficulty with the low-lying tessitura; and he lacks the full weight required for the heroic climax of By a bier-side (track 12), long familiar to listeners from Janet Baker’s interpretation back in the 1960s. Hypochondriacus (track 13) is great fun, with a succession of hectic pell-mell rhymes to rival Hilaire Belloc from the surprising pen of Charles Lamb, which goes to show that Gibbs at any rate in his later years could encompass a more jocular moods when he wanted; perhaps the refusal of the BBC to promote his comic opera was not so wisely judged after all. The penultimate song on this disc, Midnight (track 23) is fascinating in its echoes of Holst’s Ode to Death with its chromatic shifts, very effectively transferred to the simpler medium of voice and piano.
The fourth disc is entitled About Children and consists entirely of settings of poetry by de la Mare, all except the last six of the 28 songs dating from the early 1920s or earlier. In fact, many of the poems are not particularly “about children” or even childish in tone; the delicately rhapsodic treatment of the shepherd Nod (track 6) and his blind sheepdog make a rather peculiar subject for poetry suited for the tender in years. Of the earlier songs most are generally predictable settings, although the uneasily elaborate Candlestick Maker’s Song from the music for the stage play Crossings (track 15) makes one suddenly realise what Boult saw in the music of his newly discovered protegé. But then quite abruptly in the early 1920s Gibbs finds a new and different inspiration in de la Mare, with the nightmare phantasmagoria of the Song of the Mad Prince (track 10) providing an expedition to the borders of atonality, and the glacially slow-moving bell-like chords of Silver (track 16) echoing the other-worldly atmosphere of Holst in Neptune or (even more) anticipating Betelgeuse from his Humbert Wolfe settings. The Exile (track 11) also provokes comparison, this time with Vaughan Williams’s stark setting of Fredegond Shove in The New Ghost. And the bell-like chords return to more heroic effect in Take heed, young heart (track 22) which rises to a grand peroration. After that the 1930s set of de la Mare settings return to the smaller scale (all are under two minutes duration) and are mere jeux d’ésprit calling for the singers to adopt comic voices in Miss T (track 24) and elsewhere, or the piano to experiment with deliberately wayward cadences in Hide and seek (track 26). The final setting, The ship of Rio, makes for an ebullient ending, even if it does sound like a chip left on the workbench after the Peacock Pie cycle was concluded the year before. And it is interesting (and odd) that while Gibbs continued to set de la Mare in his partsongs – The listeners dates from 1951 – he never returned to the poet as a vehicle for solo song during the last quarter-century of his life.

The vocal performances are shared between Charlotte de Rothschild and Nathan Vale, who together with Adrian Farmer furnished earlier Lyrita surveys of the songs of Roger Quilter. Farmer proves an excellent accompanist, and the recorded balance keeps him well in the picture so that the many felicities in the composer’s writing can be readily appreciated. With regard to the singers, both are rather too reserved in places, especially in the narrative songs. One can imagine more gutsy and vivid interpretations of The Ballad of Semmerwater (CD3, track 2) or the eerie and genuinely nasty The witch (CD3, track 16) although I can appreciate the evident desire of the tenor to avoid melodrama. But his positively apologetic delivery of the line “Dirty lout!” at the end of The market (CD 3, track 10) can only provoke a protest on the lines of Beecham’s “Do you really consider that is an appropriate way to approach the text?” Charlotte de Rothschild too displays signs of stress at moments of heightened drama; she quite fails to rise to the challenge of the heroic declamation demanded by the Joan of Arc cycle (CD2, track 19-23), and neither of the singers has the clearest diction. The booklet supplies the listener with texts for the lesser-known (or unknown) poets – without them I would have been at a total loss to understand what the soprano was singing in places – but for the better-known lyrics (including all of those by de la Mare) the booklet recommends that listeners should reference the invaluable LiederNet Archive online.

Now, I can appreciate the need to keep the size of the already substantial 32-page booklet within reasonable bounds, but this strikes me as false economy – the more especially so when Lyrita are usually so scrupulous about supplying purchasers with complete texts for operatic and other issues, sometimes spreading into multiple booklets for the purpose. To have a computer at hand to display the texts is not an option readily available to many listeners; and in any event the arrangement of the website itself means that a new scrolling search has to be undertaken for each track, since the lyrics are grouped alphabetically by title. By the time the online search has delivered the lyrics on screen, the song may be well under way. Nor, by the way, do the online lyrics necessarily reflect those set by Gibbs; for example, Tom o’Bedlam (CD3, track 17) has nine carefully notated alterations made by the composer, quite apart from the omission of five stanzas. The alternative, for the listener to compile their own booklet from the website (to be then used in conjunction with the provided booklet for the other verses, flipping from one to the other) would be equally time-consuming. If lyrics are to be provided only online – and I can, I admit, see the reason for this – it is at least essential that they should all be on line in the same order. That really means, in turn, that the company should take responsibility for compiling a full booklet for download.

This is a shame, as in many ways this issue is so very welcome as a complete survey of an output that is far from unimportant or insignificant. Like many of these Nimbus and Lyrita bumper boxes – I have in mind their encyclopaedic surveys of the piano music of Alan Richardson, Roger-Ducasse or Françaix, among many others – it has a unique value which rides triumphantly over any relatively minor considerations of presentation. I see that Lyrita have also issued a single disc of thirty songs drawn from the compendious survey here, which may well satisfy those who wish to sample the delights of Gibbs without full immersion; but the total impression is of an output where the highlights are merely a part of a much more substantial body of work which will also repay attention. Inevitably, too, the single disc involves a measure of reduplication with the two discs of selected Gibbs songs already available from Marco Polo (now reissued on Naxos) and Hyperion. It is definitely well worthwhile getting to know the others also; but one might also note that the Hyperion collection includes a number of items missing here in the shape of When I was one-and-twenty, The birch tree, The splendour falls, Neglected moon and the Four songs for a mad sea captain. It is admittedly difficult to quantify and enumerate Gibbs’s songs; a number of those included in this set are described on the Lyrita website listing (although not in the booklet) as “version for voice and piano”, for example, which implies that other arrangements exist.

One is also somewhat at a loss as to how to name the composer; he himself disliked and discouraged the use of his first name Cecil – one rather forbidding photograph in the booklet is resolutely signed “Armstrong” – but the latter name has been so resolutely adopted as part of his surname (on the model of “Vaughan Williams”) that perhaps Lyrita’s rather inelegant compromise “C. Armstrong Gibbs” is the only practical solution. At all events this magnificently recorded set (seven sessions spread over nearly a full year) provide us with a survey of his song output that will satisfy appetites for many years to come. Finally, I know it sounds ungracious to ask for more, but some of his 150 part-songs would also be welcome on disc; his setting of Alan Bax’s Into exile for male choir is one of the most beautifully poignant works I know.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

Previous review: Nick Barnard

Disc 1 About Lovers
To Anise (1936) [3.06]
Mistletoe (1922) [2.03]
Nightfall (1949) [2.32]
Songs (3) from Henry Brocken (1937) [6.42]
Love's Wisdom (1934) [2.47]
A Ballad-Maker (1935) [3.30]
Padraic the Fidiler (1931) [2.06]
Philomel (1955) [2.28]
Titania (1934) [2.52]
Old English Lyrics (2) (1948) [3.31]
Songs (2) (1932) [2.35]
Pastorals (2) (1920) [3.19]
As I lay in the early sun (1920) [2.00]
Resting (1927) [2.06]
The Summer Palace (1952) [1.46]
Dusk (1935) [2.31]
Philomela or The Nightingale, op.13 (1914) [2.08]
Love's Prisoner (1933) [2.31]
The Cherry Tree (1949) [2.22]
The Fields are Full (1920) [1.56]

Disc 2 Song Groups and Cycles
Songs (5) to Walter de la Mare (1918-19) [12.19]
Gray and Gold (5 songs, 1922) [7.42]
A Voice in the Dusk (4 songs, op.91, 1938) [7.26]
Old Wine in New Bottles (4 Restoration songs, 1933) [5.53]
Joan of Arc (5 songs, op.102, 1942) [14.53]
Willow Leave (3 songs after the Chinese manner, op.126, 1949) [7.52]
Songs (3) to Christina Rossetti, op.131 (1952) [7.03]

Disc 3 Narrative Songs
In the Highlands (1918) [2.57]
The Ballad of Semmerwater (1930) [3.55]
Proud Maisie (1926) [1.56]
To one who passed whistling through the night (1921) [1.58]
The Rainy Day (1914) [3.04]
Lyonesse (1920) [2.06]
Lullaby, Op.3 (1914) [1.56]
Slow, Horses, Slow (1924) [2.47]
On Duncton Hill (1927) [1.54]
The Market (1926) [1.15]
The Tiger-Lily (1921) [2.37]
By a Bier-side (1924) [2.06]
Hypochondriacus (1949) [1.28]
The Flooded Stream (1931) [1.41]
The Orchard Sings to the Child (1931) [1.51]
The Witch (1937) [3.06]
Tom o' Bedlam (1934) [1.55]
The Oxen (1951) [2.34]
Lament for Robin Hood (1956) [2.15]
The Old House (1949) [1.50]
Sailing Homeward (1934) [1.52]
Prayer before sleep (1955) [3.06]
Midnight (1934) [2.30]
Evening in Summer (1959) [3.06]

Disc 4 About Children
A Song of Shadows (1917) [2.28]
The Scarecrow (1918) [2.33]
Five Eyes (1917) [1.25]
John Mouldy (1920) [2.19]
Dream Song (1917) [2.00]
Nod (1918) [2.52]
Songs (2) from Childhood (1918) [2.39]
The Little Green Orchard (1917) [2.58]
Song of the Mad Prince (1921) [1.55]
The Exile (1922) [1.38]
Songs (4) from Crossings, op.20 (1919) [10.06]
Silver, op.30 no.2 (1920) [3.14]
The Sleeping Beauty (1922) [2.18]
Lullaby (Sleep, sleep, lovely white soul) (1923) [2.48]
The Little Salamander (1923) [0.44]
The Gallias (1924) [1.55]
The Wanderer (1925) [1.35]
Take Heed, Young Heart (1925) [1.42]
Children's Songs (5) from Peacock Pie (1932) [5.30]
The Ship of Rio (1933) [1.41]

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