On record – Roderick Williams, Michael Dussek & Bridge Quartet: Those Blue Remembered Hills (EM Records)

Gurney
The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) (1920)
Edward, Edward (1914)
By A Bierside (1916)
String Quartet in D minor (1924-5)
Howells
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.

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