The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) (1920)
Edward, Edward (1914)
By A Bierside (1916)
String Quartet in D minor (1924-5)
There was a Maiden (1915)
Girl’s Song (1916)
King David (1919)
The Mugger’s Song (1919)
Roderick Williams (baritone), Michael Dussek (piano), Bridge Quartet [Colin Twigg, Catherine Schofield (violins), Michael Schofield (viola), Lucy Wilding (cello)]
EM Records EMR CD065 [80’52”]
Producer Rupert Marshall-Luck
Engineer Patrick Allen
Recorded 4 & 5 June 2018 at Potton Hall, Suffolk
Written by Richard Whitehouse
What’s the story?
The latest release from EM Records is largely devoted to music by Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), including the second of his song-cycles with ensemble and the first recording of a large-scale string quartet composed before encroaching mental illness led to a cessation of his creativity.
What’s the music like?
Time was when Gurney was viewed as a poet who also wrote songs, but recent research has unearthed piano music, two orchestral pieces and numerous chamber works. Just how much he wrote and destroyed in a period of activity through to 1927 will probably never be known.
It was the success of Ludlow and Teme (recorded on EMRCD036) which led Gurney to essay a second song-cycle after A. E. Housman. Equally well received, The Western Playland was revised in 1925, when (and of Sorrow) was added to the title as if to point up that emotional dislocation the composer felt when incarcerated at City of London Mental Hospital – far from his beloved Gloucestershire. The eight songs traverse a wide expressive range, with such as a limpid setting of Loveliest of Trees and a purposeful take on Is my Team Ploughing very different in manner yet comparable in quality to those by Butterworth or Vaughan Williams. The forced jollity of the initial Reveille strikes a slightly jarring note, but the final March conjures a luminous poise which is further enhances by its extended instrumental postlude.
Also featured are two of Gurney’s songs with piano – that of the anonymous ballad Edward, Edward summons a malevolence that finds natural contrast with the sombre wartime (indeed, trench-bound) setting of John Masefield’s By a Bierside. Four songs by Herbert Howells are a reminder of the close personal and regional ties between these composers – three of which are appealing in their craftsmanship, with the setting of Walter de la Mare’s King David as affecting as any song from this period and justifiably receiving of the poet’s endorsement.
The centrepiece here is a String Quartet in D minor – one of several written during Gurney’s incarceration and which, fortunately for posterity, he was able to hear performed thanks to the redoubtable musicologist Marion M. Scott. Extensive revisions made deciphering his ultimate intentions more difficult, but the time and effort has been well worthwhile. The EMR release referred to above contains the original version of the work’s Adagio, and the revision as heard here only intensifies its anguished pathos. This, along with the ruminative ensuing intermezzo, are the highlights of an ambitious entity – the motivic ingenuity of whose opening movement feels undermined by lack of textural or rhythmic clarity; this latter failing arguably inhibiting the vehemence and drama which otherwise inform the finale as it surges to its fatalistic close.
Does it all work?
Almost. Roderick Williams is at his perceptive best in the songs, sensitively accompanied by Michael Dussek. The Bridge Quartet is superb in the song-cycle and makes a fine effort in the quartet, of which further performances are needed to assess the full extent of its achievement.
Is it recommended?
Indeed. Gurney is a composer whose stature has only latterly become apparent, and to which this disc is a signal contribution. Spacious and natural sound balance, together with detailed and often insightful annotations, further enhance what is another indispensable EMR release.
Listen and Buy
You can discover more about this release at the EM Records website, where you can hear clips from the recording and also purchase.