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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]
Pause for a moment to consider what a large-scale undertaking this release represents both for the artists and Lyrita. Across four discs totalling just shy of four hours of music we are given one hundred and seven songs, many if not most would have been unfamiliar to the performers prior to the project starting – even finding the performing materials to begin with is a major task. The liner lists eleven different days of sessions spread across eleven months. Present at every session was pianist/accompanist Adrian Farmer who furthermore devised the project and edited the session tapes. So this is by any measure a labour of love which in one fell swoop gives the listener the most extensive available survey of the songs of Armstrong Gibbs. I assumed this must be the complete songs by Gibbs but in fact that is not the case – and not by some way. There are a further fifty not included here. Looking online at the usual music retailers there seems to be a significant cost benefit to buying this set with the 4 CD set available for around £25.00 with a FLAC download option around £31.00. This compares with £12.75 for each single CD release these same artists made for Lyrita of songs by Roger Quilter (which I have not heard).
Lyrita have released a single disc ‘sampler’ from this set at the same time but I am reviewing the complete 4-disc collection. Clearly, listening to all 107 songs in a brief period of time is not something most people are likely to do. But doing that for this review has revealed several things both in terms of the music, the character of Gibbs as a song-writer and the performances. The essential simplicity of many of these song-settings is both their strength and potential weakness. Gibbs’ accompaniments are effective and supportive, harmonically conservative but attractive and occasionally illustrative – hunting horns call, rain falls and the like. However, they rarely reveal an extra layer of psychological depth. In other words, the text might say “I am happy” but the music could reveal a deeper or contrary truth. Gibbs’ songs tend to operate on a single emotional level for any given song. Part of this is due to Gibbs’ choice of poets. His association with Walter de la Mare is well-known and the most fruitful. Of his 160 settings nearly a quarter (thirty eight) are of de la Mare texts. Away from those poems, in this collection there are no Shakespeare settings, no Housman, no Yeats or Wordsworth or the War poets. There are no extended cycles where an over-arching narrative adds emotional weight to an individual song. Interestingly some of his best songs and most famous songs are by the best poets; Blake’s Love’s Prisoner [CD 1 track 24] or Masefield’s By a Bier-side [CD 3 track 12] or Hardy’s The Oxen [CD 3 track 18] are just some examples. Although Gibbs did not subscribe to a specifically English folksong or pastoral tradition, there is no doubt that many of his song settings do envisage an idealised country life. Musically Gibbs’ style sits somewhere between the explicitly ‘Chappell Ballad” style of Eric Coates and the Art Songs of Quilter – although I suspect most would feel that Quilter is more consistently individual in his settings and more discerning in his choice of poets.
But great songs can be created using less than great texts and so there is much to enjoy throughout this extensive survey. Adrian Farmer’s accompaniments are without exception subtle and sensitive, if the piano rarely comes to the fore that is a reflection on the composer not the performer. The songs are spilt fairly evenly between tenor Nathan Vale and soprano Charlotte de Rothschild. I would say Vale has pretty much an ideal voice for this type of song – a light and flexible lyric tenor with a quite fast vibrato but with a real sense of subtle word-pointing and phrasing. His diction is excellent too. De Rothschild also sings with evident care and conviction but her voice lacks the freshness of Vale’s. There is a slight edge to her timbre and a couple of technical quirks – the ends of phrases often have a strange little bump for example – that disrupt the seamless lyrical line many of these songs require. In isolation these are not major issues – again pitching is true and diction is clear. There are not many other discs of Gibbs’ songs in the catalogue but the 2003 collection on Hyperion is quite excellent. Direct comparison with the soprano on that disc – the great Geraldine McGreevy – reveals a more flexible, alluring, light and nimble voice which de Rothschild cannot match.
Each disc is given a general collective title so CD 1 is “About Lovers”. The very first song To Anise with a text by Nathaniel Downes (1594) shows Gibbs and tenor Nathan Vale to best effect – an absolute gem. In contrast the song setting of Gibbs’ most famous melody is something of a disappointment. This is Dusk [CD1 track 22]. This orchestral slow waltz was the third movement of Gibbs’ Fancy Dress Suite. It is a genuinely memorable tune which benefits from the close harmony writing and the repeating octave fall and rise in the main theme. In the song version it is burdened with a cloyingly sentimental text, the relegation of the delicious harmonies to a subsidiary accompanying role, and the song line testing the legato technique of the singer. Dusk is also one of the songs where the text is included in the booklet with the discs. However many are not with the liner giving the explanation; “most of the texts etc. are readily available on the free site – LiederNet Archive...” The texts included are those not on the website. Which is fine and a choice dictated, I assume, by a desire to keep the booklet compact enough to fit inside the CD jewel-case. I understand the choice but I must admit if I’m following song texts I much prefer a booklet on my lap and not sitting in front of a computer screen or tablet.
CD 2 is “Song groups and cycles”. So the twenty nine songs on this disc are collected into seven groups. The slight frustration with the liner is compounded by the fact that the information it contains is nearly completely biographical. Moreover, the bulk of the content of the liner is simply a cut and paste job (with acknowledgements to the site) from The Armstrong Gibbs Society website. This explains why the information contained is certainly accurate and valid, it is rather generalised and contains little detail specific to the songs recorded here. Certainly there is no musical assessment or even superficial analysis of any of the songs. This would be especially useful with regard to these groups or cycles to give the listener an insight into the umbrella theme or narrative for these collections. As it is it is left to the listener to try and discern the through-thread. For some reason no opus numbers are provided either – a minor detail but something I like to have.
The Armstrong Gibbs Society website gives some additional information.
For example the first group here – “Five songs to Walter de la Mare” are a collection of songs with quite different opus numbers written between March 1918 – July 1919 so some of Gibbs’ earliest songs from after his meeting with de la Mare. No.5 The Bells is effectively illustrated in the piano accompaniment and was dedicated to Adrian Boult – who had been responsible for conducting the Gibbs/de la Mare collaboration Crossings which was his first wider compositional success. Boult was so impressed with Gibbs that he subsequently funded Gibbs studying at the Royal College of Music for a year as a mature student. Given the wealth of Gibbs’ family – famous for an enduring brand of toothpaste – it does lead one to wonder why they would not pay for their talented son instead!
This set of songs is certainly attractive – still mainly in the lyric/ballad mould but with no particular connecting thread except that of authorship. Another noticeable feature across the entire collection is brevity. Only one song breaks the four minute barrier (Revelation from the Joan of Arc cycle – CD2 track 19), with the vast majority in the 1-3 minute range. Concision is often a virtue but it would have been interesting to hear Gibbs trying to work on a more extended song canvas. The cycle Gray & Gold is again attractive in the now-expected lyric/ballad form. This is a set of five songs for tenor and piano to poems by Helen Taylor who appears to have been born in 1876. Again the liner gives no inkling as to why Gibbs was drawn to the text or the reason behind the title (“gray and gold” does not appear in the poems set). Perhaps, as with the following cycle “A voice in the Dusk”, the title is derived from the poet’s own collection title. Certainly that is the case for the group of four poems of poems by John Irvine. This is another set of evocative and attractive settings with Gibbs’ preference for subtle word painting and gently astringent harmonies well to the fore. There is a danger with intense listening to a lot of these songs together of a certain sameness. In isolation or small measure, these are little gems of English song. However, en masse, the sense that Gibbs was drawn repeatedly to poets of a similar Romantic sensibility is hard to avoid and that his musical response was relatively unvaried.
The four songs of Old Wine in New Bottles slightly breaks that mould by using Restoration texts. One tiny typo perhaps; the first song starts with the line, according to the liner; “When Arthur first in court began...” Nathan Vale sings “at”. The third song has another very appealing yet simple melodic line and effective accompaniment. As a set, this group exhibits more unbuttoned energy than many songs here and Gibbs injects just a whiff of faux-period rhythms and melodic shapes to good effect. As a coherent cycle the five songs that constitute Joan of Arc are the most impressive. This appears to be a set of stand-alone texts written by another preferred Gibbs poet Mordaunt Currie – he set some seventeen Currie poems to music. Currie collaborated with Gibbs to provide the text for his choral Symphony No.2 ‘Odysseus’. Since the symphony – deemed by some as Gibbs’ greatest work – dates from some four years before this cycle, my assumption is that this was another text written for the work in the light of the earlier success. Certainly, this feels most like a song cycle in the regular sense of the phrase.
As mentioned previously the opening song Revelation is Gibbs’ longest composition in this set. The reason is clear with the piano being given a role of setting the scene for the entire cycle. Unsurprisingly given the subject matter, this is a cycle for soprano. The narrative arc – pardon the pun – of the cycle is very clearly defined from the initial “calling” through to the crowning of the king and then the final death at the stake. As to be expected Gibbs is very skilled at creating each mood and then illustrating it on the keyboard. But as before, the actual consistent quality of the text is somewhat suspect and Gibbs rarely tries to dig deeper into the psychology of the drama. Charlotte de Rothschild exhibits care and attention to the text but again at the exultant climax of the third song Crowning [track 21] her voice lacks the easy brilliance that would be ideal.
The songs on this disc are presented in broadly chronological order which is useful for the listener to get a sense of compositional progression or development by Gibbs. By that measure there is remarkably little change over the 33 years between the de la Mare songs of 1919 and the Rossetti settings of 1952. The latter are an attractive group lasting less than seven minutes in total with the central A birthday having a bravura piano part which Adrian dispatches with easy virtuosity. The other two songs revert to Gibbs’ more familiar simplicity which is effective and rather touching in its directness.
The twenty four songs on CD 3 are collected under the title “Narrative Songs”. In many ways these play better to Gibbs’ strengths. By definition these songs are telling stories which are aided by the illustrative accompaniments. They are also self-contained and self-sufficient which again is a Gibbs strength. So no surprise that this is possibly the strongest single disc in the set with about ten songs on this disc also appearing on the Hyperion collection mentioned before. The Ballad of Semmerwater is a doom-laden story of a sunken town “deep asleep ’till doom..” Gibbs rather effectively creates a tolling bells-in-the-depths motif and with the strophic nature of such a song is able to elaborate on this with word-pointing and atmospheric keyboard writing. Hardy’s Lyonesse and Blake’s Lullaby are predictable highlights but also Thomas Westwood’s Slow, Horses, Slow is impressively evocative. Charles Lamb’s Hypochondriacus is a virtuoso patter song performed here with verbal dexterity and wit by Nathan Vale. The disc is intelligently planned with regular alternation between the two singers and the moods of the songs they sing.
The final disc is “About Children” and all the twenty eight texts are by Walter de la Mare. Several are from their first collaboration “Crossings” from 1919 while another eleven are taken from de la Mare famous anthology of children’s poems published in 1913 collectively called “Peacock Pie”. The innocence of childhood is clearly a theme that Gibbs responded to frequently and consistently across much of his composing career. Not that Gibbs alters his writing style much so my sense is – as the collective title suggests – these are about not for children.
There is real interest in hearing the songs from “Crossings” since this does represent Gibbs’ proper ‘debut’ as a composer and his first collaboration with de la Mare. As this was also the work that prompted Boult to encourage Gibbs along the composing path I find it fascinating to try and glean the talent Boult perceived. Again I find the lack of freshness in de Rothschild’s voice works against the youthful spirit of some of the songs. Direct comparison with McGreevy points this up. For example Five Eyes [track 3] is a bustling song about 3 old cats who live in a mill. De Rothschild works hard on the characterisation but the nimbler more alert McGreevy catches the witty brilliance of the song (at a quicker tempo too) to far greater effect. Interestingly this is one of Gibbs’ earliest songs which shows how his compositional voice evolved relatively little over the following years. There are some lovely songs here – the hushed Silver with its tolling piano accompaniment shows Gibbs at his best where simplicity is a virtue. This is another song where McGreevy and de Rothschild come into direct comparison – this time at very similar basic pulse. Again, the older recording is preferable.
The value of this extensive but not complete survey is the presentation of the majority of Gibbs’ song output in a single place well recorded and performed with care and affection. As such it becomes a valuable reference for anyone wishing to explore the composer’s songs. That being the case, the lack of detailed documentation or any overview or analysis is both disappointing and a little surprising given how good Lyrita’s liner booklets usually are. For those wishing to sample a smaller selection of Gibbs’ songs, I feel the earlier recital on Hyperion is a better option. There is another single recital disc on Marco Polo sung by baritone Nik Hancock-Child. Hancock-Child has a slightly old-fashioned singing style which actually suits the ballads Gibbs wrote very well. The presence of Nathan Vale in this new set adds considerably to its value. Over the four discs I did begin to wonder if he could vary the use of his fast near tremulous vibrato more but as I mentioned at the outset his voice and style of delivery suits this music very well. All three accompanists are excellent although perhaps Roger Vignoles on Hyperion is the most imaginative and varied.
Overall a set to be welcomed with the caveats mentioned above both in terms of expressive range of the songs and certain questions regarding the singing here. Perhaps sampling via the Wyastone website first would be the best idea.
Contents Disc 1 – About Lovers
To Anise (1936) [3:06]
Mistletoe – Peacock Pie (1922) [2:03]
Nightfall (1949) 2:32]
3 Songs 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]
Two Pastorals (1920) [3:21]
Old English Lyrics (excerpts) (1948) [3:31]
2 Songs (1932) [2:35]
Love is a sickness (1922) [1:34]
As I lay in the early sun (1920) [2:00]
Resting (1927) [2:06]
The Summer Palace (1952) [1:46]
Dusk (1949) [2:31]
Philomela or The Nightingale (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 & Cycles
Five Songs to Walter de la Mare (1918/19) [12:19]
Gray & Gold (1922) [7:42]
A Voice in the Dusk (1938) [7:26]
Old Wine in New Bottles (1933) [5:53]
Joan of Arc (1942) [14:53]
Willow Leaves (1949) [7:52]
Christina Rossetti Songs (1952) [6:43] 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 ((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 ‘Peacock Pie’ (1917) [2:28]
The Scarecrow (1918) [2:33]
Five Eyes ‘Peacock Pie’ (1917) [1:25]
John Mouldy (1920) [2:19]
Dream Song ‘Peacock Pie’ (1917) [2:00]
Nod (1918) [2:52]
Two Songs from Childhood (1918) 2:39]
The Little Green Orchard ‘Peacock Pie’ (1917) [2:58]
Song of the Mad Prince ‘Peacock Pie’ (1921) [1:55]
The Exile (1922) [1:38]
4 Songs from ‘Crossings’ (1919) [9:06]
Silver ‘Peacock Pie’ (1920) [3:14]
The Sleeping Beauty (1922) [2:18]
Lullaby (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]
5 Children’s Songs from ‘Peacock Pie’ (1932) [5:30]
The Ship of Rio ‘Peacock Pie’ (1933) [1:41]