On record – Martyn Hill, Meriel Dickinson & Peter Dickinson: James Joyce’s Favourite Songs (Heritage)

Chamber Music: Thirty-Two Songs by G. Molyneaux Palmera The Joyce Book: Thirteen Songs, by Moeran, Bax, Roussel, Hughes, Ireland, Sessions, Bliss, Howells, Antheil, Carducci, Goossens, C. W. Orr and van Dierenb

bMeriel Dickinson (mezzo-soprano), aMartyn Hill (tenor), Peter Dickinson (piano)

Heritage HTGCD175 [71’28”]

Producer Jillian M. White
Remastering Engineers John Marsden, Peter Newble

Recorded 7 December 1981, BBC Broadcasting House, London (The Joyce Book); 18 November 1986, St. George’s Brandon Hill (Chamber Music)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

Heritage further expands its Peter Dickinson discography with these song-cycles in which he appears as pianist, setting poems from James Joyce’s two collections of verse; both heard in recordings which were first broadcast in the 1980s and now rescued from the BBC archives.

What’s the music like?

The major rediscovery here is an almost complete traversal of Chamber Music by Geoffrey Molyneaux Palmer (1992-1957), English born but long resident in Dublin where he worked as church organist and composer. Despite the author’s enthusiastic endorsement, Palmer was never to finish the project, despite his leaving blank pages for those four poems (Nos. 12, 29, 32 and 33) still awaiting music. Through the tenacity of Myra Teicher Russel, the manuscript was located at Southern Illinois University in 1981 with a studio broadcast on BBC Radio 3 seven years later (preceded, as this author recalls, by a fascinating introduction on the Music Weekly programme). Thanks to the foresight of BBC producer Jillian White, that broadcast was subsequently archived and can finally enjoy a welcome if belated commercial release.

In stylistic terms, Palmer settings are very much ‘turn of the century’ in their melding of an inherently English lyricism with harmonic subtleties redolent of Fauré or early Debussy. As ordered by Joyce’s brother Stanislaus, these 36 poems pursue an ‘innocence to experience’ trajectory via a relationship which is tentatively envisaged before being passionately lived then regretfully abandoned. Throughout the sequence, Palmer is acutely attentive to those flights of fancy with which Joyce opens out his poems’ expressive potency – tailoring his response to the intricacies of the text at hand while running several songs together so as to accentuate cumulative intensity overall. A pity the climactic XXXIII remained unset, but    the composer’s response to the stark seascape of XXXVI yields a suitably plangent close.

Also included is The Joyce Book, 13 settings taken from Joyce’s subsequent collection Pomes Penyeach which was published in Paris in 1927 and accorded musical treatment thanks to the prompting of Irish editor Herbert Hughes. That the resultant settings included two American, a French and an Italian composer confirms the international standing Joyce by then enjoyed; further underlined by the deluxe edition with which this collection was issued in 1933, a year after its public premiere in London. Stylistically the settings are as diverse as the composers represented: among the most distinctive are the lilting wistfulness of Hughes’s She weeps over Rahoon, easeful rapture of Arthur Bliss’s Simples and suffused ecstasy of Bernard van Dieren’s A Prayer on which both this ‘cycle’ and Joyce’s collection reach their close.

Does it all work?

It does, given the expressive consistency of Palmer’s settings as also the diversity of those in the later miscellany. Martyn Hill was among the leading lyric tenors of his generation, with Meriel Dickinson seldom equalled for her conveying of the emotional sense behind the text.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least when Peter Dickinson is an insightful accompanist and provides the detailed commentaries, while the sound has come up well in remastering (the latter collection a shade reverberant). Required listening, not only for admirers of Joyce or the English song tradition.



You can discover more about this release at the Heritage Records website, where you can also purchase the recording.


You can read about Peter Dickinson at his website

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