On record: Heracleitus (EM Records)

heracleitus

Butterworth: Songs (1910/11)*/** – When the Lad for Longing Sighs; Bredon Hill; On the Idle Hill of Summer; With Rue My Heart is Laden. Songa (1911/12)*/** – Fill a Glass with Golden Wine; On the Way to Kew

Gurney: Ludlow and Teme (1919)*/**/***. Adagio (1924)***. Songs*/** – The Cloths of Heaven (1918); Severn Meadows (1917); By a Bierside (1916).

Warlock: Songs */*** – Heracleitus (1917); Sweet Content (1919)

*Charles Daniels (tenor); **Michael Dussek (piano); ***Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield, violins; Michael Schofield, viola; Lucy Wilding, cello]

Summary

The centenary of the Battle of the Somme has seen various commemorations in music, with this latest release from EM Records among the most significant. It centres on two composers – one of whom died during the Somme offensive, while the other never recovered from being gassed at Passchendaele the next year. The disc also opens-out appreciation of their output in featuring autonomous pieces for string quartet and as accompaniment to several of the songs.

What’s the music like?

All these forces are brought together in Ludlow and Teme, Ivor Gurney’s song-cycle on verse from A.E. Housman’s collection A Shropshire Lad. A notable though unstable creative force in those years after the cessation of war, it was long considered among Gurney’s largest and most inclusive works; its expressive range more than compensating for any lack of sustained intensity across its six songs. One of these, ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’, was set by George Butterworth prior to the War – his version confirming both a greater emotional lightness and textural subtlety which are no less apposite. Also included are two Butterworth settings of W. E. Henley, suffused by that dry wit and wistful charm emblematic of the Edwardian era. The disc closes with more Gurney – moving backwards in time so the pathos of W.B. Yeats’s The Cloths of Heavens, and poignancy of the composer’s Severn Meadows, is rounded-off by the eloquence of John Masefield’s By a Bierside in what ranks among Gurney’s greatest settings.

Two songs by Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine, who seems to have avoided conscription via a mixture of guile and happenstance) are among several conceived with accompaniment for string quartet, and have been idiomatically arranged as such by John Mitchell. Of these, Heracleitus is a setting of W.J. Cory (after Callimachus) as evinces the influence of Bernard van Dieren in its sombre tread and harmonic richness, while that of Thomas Dekker’s Sweet Content exudes the chic vacuity which is often to be encountered in Warlock’s lesser songs.

The other two works are also first recordings. Odd that Butterworth’s Suite for String Quartet should have had to wait 15 years since publication, as it is the composer’s largest extant piece and offers valuable insight into his wresting with abstract forms. The opening Andante is well argued, though the Scherzando and Allegro might profitably have been integrated, while the fourth movement is insufficiently contrasted with a final Moderato whose faltering progress is indication of a project lacking the ultimate focus. Not so the Adagio from a String Quartet in D minor, seemingly the only surviving chamber work from Gurney’s final manic outburst of creativity and whose heightened emotion bodes well for a hearing of the complete work.

Does it all work?

Yes, when seen as an overall programme that skilfully interweaves its vocal and instrumental items to give a thoughtful and revealing portrait of the two main composers featured herein.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, not least as the contribution of Charles Daniels (best known for his interpretation and editions of Baroque music) is so attuned to the songs in question. Michael Dussek is as ever an attentive accompanist, and the Bridge Quartet continues its persuasive exploration of English music. Both recording and annotations are up to the customary high standard of EM Records.

Richard Whitehouse

For more information on their extensive catalogue of English music, visit the EM Records website

On record: Now Comes Beauty – Commissions from the English Music Festival

now-comes-beauty

Richard Blackford Spirited (2013)

Paul Carr Now Comes Beauty (2009); Suddenly It’s Evening (2013)

Matthew Curtis A Festival Overture (2008)

Philip Lane Aubade Joyeuse (1986)

Paul Lewis Norfolk Suite (2013)

David Matthews White Nights Op.26 (1980)

David Owen Norris Piano Concerto (2008)

John Pickard Binyon Songs (2015)

Christopher Wright Legend (2013)

Roderick Williams (baritone – Pickard); Rupert Marshall-Luck (violin – Carr & David Matthews); David Owen Norris (piano); BBC Concert Orchestra / Owain Arwel Hughes (Blackford), Gavin Sutherland (all others)

EM Records

Summary

Over the decade of its existence, the English Music Festival has revived an impressive number of works from (not always deserved) obscurity and commissioned numerous others. Some of the latter are brought together on this set, with a stylistic range wider than might be supposed.

What’s the music like?

The discs adopt a roughly similar layout, each opening with an overture as makes for a lively curtain-raiser. How else to describe A Festival Overture by Matthew Curtis (b1959), its bustle offset by a lyrical melody redolent of those in Sullivan’s Irish Symphony, whereas Spirited by Richard Blackford (b1954) adds a hint of Adams-like minimalism to broaden the transatlantic appeal of his engaging piece. Of the two works featuring solo violin, White Nights by David Matthews (b1943) draws on Dostoevsky (via Bresson) and the composer’s own experiences in a haunting and eventful nocturne – later remodelled as the opening movement of his First Violin Concerto. More limited in its content and expressive range, Suddenly It’s Evening by Paul Carr (b1961) exudes a wistfully elegiac air that is no less fully conveyed by Rupert Marshall-Luck.

Carr also appears on the other disc with Now Comes Beauty, formerly a song then a motet before emerging as a miniature for strings ideal for the ‘Smooth Classics’ slot on Classic FM. Aubade Joyeuse by Philip Lane (b1950) is (to quote the composer) an ‘introduction and allegro’ that assumes mounting activity prior to its climactic fugato and vigorous close. Firmly in the lineage of British geographical pieces, Norfolk Suite by Paul Lewis (b1943) takes in the heroic setting of Castle Rising, evocative ruins of Wymondham Abbey, ruminative calm of Ranworth Broad and bustling jollity of Norwich Market over its appealing course. Further down the east coast, the Suffolk hamlet of Shingle Street had inspired Legend by Christopher Wright (b1954), its sombre yet affecting mood amply evoking the aura of this isolated place.

Of the works ending each disc, the Piano Concerto by David Owen Norris (b1953) is a three-movement entity on ostensibly Classical lines. The solo writing is as idiomatic and assured as might be expected from this fine pianist, with that for orchestra hardly less idiomatic. Yet after a well-argued Allegro, the Andante loses its way in misplaced rhetoric and emotional cliché, with the finale too reliant on its underlying jig rhythm prior to an overstretched and predictable apotheosis. ‘‘Keys have personalities’’ says the composer: his music could do with more of it.

Binyon Songs by John Pickard (b1963) might well have emerged as a song-cycle malgré-lui, but the motivic cohesion and expressive logic with which these unfold cannot be gainsaid. The first four may be relatively brief, yet the wrenching ambivalence of Nature, tenuous hope of Sowing Seed, tensile anger of Autumn Song and suffused rapture of When all the World is Hidden make their mark no less acutely than the expansive The Burning of the Leaves that makes for a cathartic ending. Roderick Williams sings with his customary poise and eloquence.

Does it all work?

Yes, in terms of the complementary and contrasting aspects which inform this collection as a whole. The set is further enhanced by the excellence of the BBC Concert Orchestra’s playing, with Owain Arwel Hughes making a welcome appearance in the two overtures and the rest of the programme directed with unstinting conviction by Gavin Sutherland. The recorded sound takes full advantage of Watford Colosseum’s spacious immediacy, while the booklet includes detailed overviews of each work and composer together with full texts for the Binyon settings.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Since its inception, EM Records has amassed a notable catalogue of predominantly first recordings – with the present release among its most ambitious and rewarding. Uneven in overall quality though it may be, the best of the music here deserves the widest dissemination.

Richard Whitehouse