Donald Swann (1923-94) is particularly remembered for his shows with Michael
Flanders (At the Drop of a Hat, etc.) but his genius was many-sided
and this CD will extend the knowledge of his music for many people.
Swann got to know the Greek islands at the end of the Second War, especially
Casos in the Dodecanese. This was reflected in his music from time to time
and this well recorded CD seeks to draw together Swann's Greek strands. Some
of the tracks are arrangements of traditional songs, mostly sung in Greek;
others are varied original settings by Swann of Greek poems, mostly sung
in English, of which I particularly enjoyed the delicious Miranda,
which often figured in At the Drop of a Hat, the charming dialogue
The Favours and the stark The Isles of Greece.
The three singers, admirable in their clarity of diction and delivery, are
all well suited to this repertoire and they are accompanied by a chamber
orchestra, a solo soprano saxophone contributing some evocative moments.
The arrangements, including the purely instrumental Casiot Journey
are by Mr. Jansson, who also sets the folk song Militsa which Swann
did not set but much enjoyed. Swann returned to Casos in 1986, wondering
if the spell it cast would have dissipated (it hadn't); the eight Casos
Sonnets represent his thoughts in words and music on that journey. All
are here, sung by Swann himself to his piano accompaniment, as a bonus II-VII,
which also finely sung by the three "modern" singers. Their idiom is often
recitative-like but is nevertheless deeply felt. Divine Art's relatively
small catalogue has afforded several items of unusual interest, many of them
British. This is certainly one of them and I am happy to give it a warm
and Rob Barnett adds:-
Donald Swann is best known as half of Flanders and Swann - a humorist singing
(and speaking) partnership which continued until 1967. Before that many of
their songs (celebrated in their revue At The Drop of a Hat) became
part of the British popular psyche of the 1950s and 1960s. Mud Mud Glorious
Mud is the best known of their songs. They are still regarded with great
Donald Swann was on this evidence clearly a most accomplished and sensitive
composer. His music is unfailingly lyrical although his word-settings often
seem disarmingly disconnected from the curve and fall of the words. This
is part of his engaging magic which knows nothing of bombast or grandiloquence.
The disc (gratifyingly filled to overflowing) contains new recordings (circa
63 minutes) and a home tape recording of Swann accompanying himself at the
piano in The Casos Sonnets (eight songs to words by Swann). The latter,
which plays for 14:47, has been cleaned of hiss but there is a trace overload
of the piano sound and the occasional waver or wobble.
This disc is essentially The Isles of Greece cycle (folksily orchestrated
with a light hand by the conductor) with individual songs sung by one
(occasionally more) of the three listed singers. The cycle comprises The
Casos Sonnets (seven of the eight) interspersed with Swann's arrangements
of Greek folk songs (the latter sung in Greek).
Nothing jars and Jansson's orchestrations contribute to a literature that
spans the light/serious 'divide' in common with works such as Canteloube's
Chants d'Auvergne, Berio's Folksongs, Marek's song cycles and
Sean Davey's Granuaile cycle.
Swann served in the Dodecanese isle of Casos from 1944-46 as a young relief
worker with the Friends Ambulance Unit. While there he wrote down many of
the folk songs he heard from the refugees in his care. The folk-songs dance,
chime and serenade. The Favours makes a fine, slightly arch, novelty
duet about a girl and her aspirant suitor. The songs breathe the air of the
Mediterranean and some hint at further east e.g. in the sweet and pungent
perfumes of Anatolia. The Women of Souli floats and dances
in a heat-shimmer long baked into the glaring landscape. Militsa has
a threatening railway beat like a superheated headache. Idle Tears
glints and shivers with the harp and chants lovingly around David Roach's
saxophone. The title song Isles of Greece ticks and spins with
impressionistic vitality - a spidery web of magical clockwork.
The singers seem excellent throughout and there is nothing of the suffocating
operatic ambience. The orchestra (a string quartet, flute/piccolo, oboe/sax,
clarinet, bassoon, two horns, percussion, piano, harp and bass) is used with
great delicacy. This music has a nostalgic fragility which might otherwise
It was an inspired decision to include Swann's home-spun tape recording which
is never less than poetic. Swann's breathless sprechgesang and high notes
that aspire (but don't actually achieve) are trademarks of an eccentric but
touchingly loveable English creator.
The words of the folk songs, though sung in Greek, are given only in translation
in the booklet which is a pity. The booklet is otherwise excellent although
it does not give the composer's dates of birth and death.
If you would like to sample a single track then go straight to the joyous
dance that is The Isles of Greece (track 20).
This is a very fine disc and well worth seeking out.