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Never innocence 38610
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Never Such Innocence
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The House of Life (1904)
George Butterworth (1885-1916)
Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad (1911-12)
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
Five Elizabethan Songs (1913)
Benjamin Hewat-Craw (baritone)
Yuhao Guo (piano)
rec. 2021, Bürgermeisterhaus Essen-Werden, Germany

The title of this CD “Never Such Innocence” is taken from the Philip Larkin poem MCMXIV which was written in response to seeing old photographs of men signing up at the beginning of World War I. Baritone Benjamin Hewat-Craw and pianist Yuhao Guo have created a programme of songs written in the decade before that war began. Although British-born, Hewat-Craw has been based in Germany studying and performing for the last six years and along with Guo have won lieder prizes in Cologne. Despite the many beauties and qualities of the works, British Art songs do not seem to travel very easily so it is very pleasing to see this recital recorded on a German label receiving support from the German Music Foundation.

The three composers chosen for this recital are familiar as are the songs themselves. Important to note that none as such were written as a response to the Great War – even Housman’s iconic Shropshire Lad poems were written after the Boer War. In a brief introduction Hewat-Craw makes the valid point that in that decade of the Edwardian age (and just after) all three composers were writing music on a kind of musical and emotional cusp both acknowledging their artistic debt to their predecessors but also looking to forge new and individual paths. Tragically both George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney’s lives were curtailed by the 1914-18 War – Butterworth dying on the Somme in August 1916 and Gurney so profoundly affected by his experiences that he spent the last fifteen years of his life in a mental asylum until his death in 1937. All three song cycles offered here are very familiar and have been recorded previously. Vaughan Williams’ House of Life is the earliest work here dating from 1904. He chose six texts by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Second in the cycle is one of the composer’s earliest major successes; Silent Noon but the complete cycle was not recorded until tenor Anthony Rolfe-Johnson did so in a fine 1974 performance. Since then it has been recorded mainly by baritones – as here – including Benjamin Luxon, Stephen Roberts, Thomas Allen and Roderick Williams to name just the best known.

This cycle is Vaughan Williams’ first as such. The Vaughan Williams Society website lists a preceding decade of single song settings using words by various authors including Tennyson, Shakespeare, Browning, Coleridge, Herrick and Swinburne to name just a few. But with the House of Life Vaughan Williams sought to create a sequence which can be treated as “aspects of love”. His musical treatments are fascinating – especially retrospectively – as he can be seen trying to find a balance between the musical and emotional sensibilities of the recently finished Victorian Age and his own instinct to experiment with something more impressionistic and influenced by folksong. This is evident when one compares the Chappell-ballad character of the 4th song Heart’s Haven and the Victorian melodrama of the 5th, Death in Love with the substantially more mature and questing final song Love’s Last Gift. The progress Vaughan Williams was making at this time is remarkable as evidenced by his Songs of Travel cycle from the following year which marks a significant progression from the slightly staid House of Life. His studies with Ravel were still a few years in the future with On Wenlock Edge an obvious beneficiary from the musical and expressive freedom that gave him.

But in its own right the House of Life is an attractive and effective cycle and it receives a sensitive performance here. Hewat-Craw has a flexible and expressive instrument – he sounds appropriately young and fresh-voiced with excellent diction. All the song texts are given in their original English with French and German translations. He is supported very skilfully by Yuhao Guo who is quite meticulous in his observation of the detailed markings in the piano score. Possibly an accompanist as experienced as Geoffrey Parsons who plays for Thomas Allen on his EMI/Warner “On the Idle Hill of Summer” recital is even more artless achieving wonderfully expressive effects through the subtlest musical nuances. Likewise Allen’s ability to inflect a word adds an emotional weight which Hewat-Craw’s direct style cannot yet match. The second song in the cycle Silent Noon is the one most often excerpted for recitals and alongside Linden Lea is probably Vaughan Williams’ best-known early song. Again Hewat-Craw impresses with his care and attention to the text but at this stage in his vocal development his voice does not yet have the evenness across the range that the finest singers do.

This is particularly evident in Butterworth’s Six Songs from a Shropshire lad. Here Butterworth – an avid folksong collector – achieves a remarkable fusion of original art song that at the same time inhabits the spirit of folksong. Housman notoriously disliked his poems being set to music but you do have to wonder if he secretly admired such settings as this Butterworth cycle. If you compare Hewat-Craw with the great Benjamin Luxon in his vocal pomp you can hear the difference between good and great. Luxon possessed that barrel-chested bluffness (when he wanted it) that made him such a compelling and characterful performer. Hewat-Craw is just a little measured – emotionally cautious – for this cycle. He makes a couple of unusual choices too. In the fifth song The lads in their hundreds Butterworth marks the song allegro with f as the dynamic. Hewat-Craw and Guo opt for something very staid both in terms of dynamic and tempo which all but extinguishes the emotional urgency of lines such as “there with the rest are the lads who will never grow old”. More curious still is the minimising of the contrasts in the most famous of the Housman settings; Is my team ploughing? The dialogue between the ghost and his friend is delineated by the otherworldly ghost set pp in the upper range and the hearty f friend placed in the most comfortable range for the singer. Luxon plays this contrast for all it is worth but for some reason Hewat-Craw makes a minimal differentiation. Butterworth’s accompaniment is essentially the same (excepting dynamics) for both characters so perhaps the singer perceives less of a difference – more a man and his conscience? Again throughout the cycle Guo is a responsive and alert accompanist and certainly the listener takes away from this is what a fine cycle Butterworth wrote – as the liner reminds us;  the inscription to the composer at Pozières Memorial reads “great in what he achieved, greater still in what he promised..”

The recital is completed by Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs. This is more an anthology than a cycle but a beautiful one at that. Again it has been often recorded by male and female, high and low voices. If the Butterworth benefits from a ‘bluff’ male voice there is a strong argument to be made here for a high-lying voice to have the lyrical freedom that suits Gurney’s achingly beautiful settings. I must admit that I particularly enjoy Susan Bickley’s intensely felt version on Naxos (originally part of Collins’ English Song series). Bickley is more playful, more nuanced in her word painting than Hewat-Craw and her accompanist Iain Burnside is equally subtle where Guo occasionally over-thinks his phrasing and it becomes too considered and careful. Martyn Hill’s performance on Hyperion as part of their “War’s Embers” set with Clifford Benson on piano shows that a tenor can also be very effective in this cycle. Again, Hill has an expressive freedom that is both compelling and very beautiful and simply more impressive than Hewat-Craw can achieve. These settings also expose the relative tightness and lack of tonal warmth in the upper range of Hewat-Craw’s voice especially at louder dynamics.

But this is a recital to be enjoyed and welcomed in its own right. For all the competition that exists in this repertoire, it is important for young singers to be able to immerse themselves in this music to ensure that a performing tradition will continue and develop. I hope that Hewat-Craw has opportunities to perform these works in recital in Germany as all three works are fine examples of just how impressive British Art Song in the 20th century could be. The Ars Produktion recording is technically fine with the balance between voice and keyboard well handled. The piano sound is well caught too – perhaps slightly light-toned but I suspect this might be a feature of Yuhao Guo’s playing which as mentioned is always very sensitive and alert. Sometimes I found his phrasing and use of rubato to be a little fussy rather than spontaneous but this is technically poised and considered playing.

My one and only niggle with the disc’s presentation is whoever designed the booklet cover and chose the photography. The front has the two performers bathed in pink and blue light lying on a carpet with the pianist’s eyes closed and the singer staring into the lens from under a flat cap. Turn to the back cover, they’ve swapped hats and the singer is now offering the pianist a pomegranate. Presumably because he cannot eat it since he is wearing a World War I gas mask (missing its hose and filter). Said pomegranate features in two other images within the booklet along with a vortex carpet (also twice) of which I guess the art director is very pleased. All of which is deeply pointless and actually just a little bit pretentious. I would rather have seen the image that inspired Larkin. The Butterworth cycle is also misnamed on the CD cover and in the booklet as Six Songs OF a Shropshire Lad.

So an intelligently constructed programme of fine British song cycles in well-prepared performances that ultimately cannot displace the finest available.

Nick Barnard

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