ENDNOTES, 10th November 2017
In this edition: Celebrating English Song – a new release from Somm Recordings, reviewed by STUART MILLSON
Taken largely from the early-20th-century ‘English songbook’ (the music of Butterworth, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, Gurney and Warlock) Somm’s new issue – ‘Celebrating English Song’ (SOMMCD 0177) – brings together the distinguished baritone, Roderick Williams, and piano accompanist, Susie Allen (a graduate of the Guildhall School of Music and also associated with the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Studies). Roderick Williams has made a speciality of this era and genre, memorably performing Butterworth’s poignant Housman settings about three years ago at the Proms, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. For the piano version which appears on the new recording (made in the warm, intimate setting of Rectory Farm, Noke, Oxfordshire), Williams loses none of the commanding power for which his voice is famous – delivering beautifully-shaped, clear-as-crystal words. Another great British baritone, Benjamin Luxon, also made a recording of the Butterworth sequence, for Decca, in the late 1970s, and it is interesting to compare the somewhat growly tone of Luxon – where words are sometimes hard to discern and follow – with the careful, even perfect, yet never over-emphasised enunciation of Roderick Williams.
The opening poem or song, ‘Loveliest of trees’, immediately sets us down in a landscape of pastoral beauty, but – in the shadow of the cherry blossom and Housman’s blue-remembered hills – always tinged with the memories of lost days, lost loves, lost lives; spring turning to winter, the white of the fertile Eastertide blossom becoming the snow of the dying of the year:
“Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
… About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.”
John Ireland’s well-known Masefield setting, Sea Fever, continues the idea of the lonely human spirit amid nature – the onlooker considering “the grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking” and asking only for the chance to see and feel again “the white clouds flying,/And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.” For this, Roderick Williams gives a performance which rises in intensity – a feeling that the tides, and tides of memory, are almost threatening to overwhelm you. As the poem reaches its end – “a quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over” – the singer suspends us in time, and the sailor’s yarn or a view of the sea, gently fades. An outstanding interpretation of the Ireland – Susie Allen at the piano contributing an almost impressionist feel to the music.
But not every work on Somm’s treasury of English verse is steeped in melancholia: Ivor Gurney’s ‘Captain Stratton’s Fancy’ (another Masefield poem) pays lively tribute to “the old bold mate of Henry Morgan” – scorning those who “are for the lily or rose” and preferring instead – “the sugar cane that in Jamaica grows”. This hymn of praise to rum is matched by a Hardy piece about other ‘Great Things’ – in this case, cider, and the maid and mistress who tend the local hostelry. John Ireland is the composer here – a man who, it is said, enjoyed the occasional drop…
“Sweet cyder is a great thing,
A great thing to me,
Spinning down to Weymouth town,
By Ridgway thirstily.”
“With candles lit and partners fit/For night-long revelry,” his song is an enjoyable example of that other great idea of our native romantic composers, the innocent, life-affirming rustic celebration; the goodness of the village inn. With German lieder taking its salon audience to a world of Rhineland meadows, it is always pleasing to stumble along the path to Weymouth with composers and drinking companions, such as John Ireland.
The most up-to-date contribution to the disc is a Robert Graves setting made by composer Ian Venables (b. 1955). A favourite figure at the English Music Festival, his compositions spring from the tonal sound-world of England’s musical life of the past – yet a quirkiness is at work in ‘Flying Crooked’:
“The butterfly, the cabbage white,
(His honest idiocy of flight)
Will never now, it is too late,
Master the art of flying straight.”
As a I type these words, we are four days from Remembrance Sunday. So it is perhaps fitting that Endnotes concludes with lines movingly delivered by Roderick Williams from Butterworth’s ‘Shropshire Lad’ settings:
“But now you may stare as you like and there’s nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.
Stuart Millson is Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review
Piano Recital by Dmitri Alexeev, In Celebration of Great Romantics, St John’s Smith Square, Thursday 2 November 2017, reviewed by Leslie Jones
At age 70, Dmitri Alexeev is still a lithe and sprightly figure. He opened this well attended concert at St John’s with Chopin’s complex Polonaise-Fantaisie, Op.61. Its forceful, heroic opening gives way eventually to a poetic inner section tinged with melancholy. Alexeev’s playing was suitably sensitive and expressive throughout and a taste of things to come.
Although Fryderyk Chopin was undoubtedly an important influence, Alexander Scriabin had his own unique sound signature. His 24 Preludes (Op.11), alternating between major and minor keys, were composed between 1888 and 1894. These contrasting pieces are all quite short, allowing the pianist to traverse a range of moods in a relatively short time frame, with elegaic moments of quiet introspection inter-spersed with agitated and turbulent passages. There are echoes in places of the composer’s sublime Piano Concerto in F Sharp Minor. The endings to these preludes are invariably subtle and exquisite. At certain moments, time stood still. Maestro Alexeev clearly loves this set which he played from memory. It was rapturously received by an attentive audience which contained many of his compatriots.
The performance of Schumann’s Études Symphoniques, Op. 13, after the interval, was also well received. But it arguably lacked the finesse, the light and shade, of the Scriabin. At times, the playing was a tad repetitive and overbearing. But were we were still transfixed by the timeless beauty of Scriabin’s 24 Preludes?
LESLIE JONES is Editor of QR