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 – Skempton: Man and Bat, Piano Concerto & The Moon is Flashing (First Hand Records)

Howard Skempton
Eternity’s Sunrise (2003)
The Moon is Flashing (2007, arr. 2018)
Piano Concerto (2015, arr. 2018)
Man and Bat (2017)

James Gilchrist (tenor, The Moon is Flashing); Roderick Williams (baritone, Man and Bat); Tim Horton (piano, Piano Concerto); Ensemble 360

First Hand Records FHR90 [70’25”]

English texts included
Producer Tim Oldham
Engineer Phil Rowlands

Recorded 20 July 2019 at Upper Chapel, Sheffield (Man and Bat), 5-7 February 2019 at All Saints’ Church, East Finchley, London (others)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A welcome addition to the recorded representation of Howard Skempton (b1947), including two pieces specially arranged by the composer for reduced forces and also two pieces written specifically for ensemble, all performed by artists closely associated with Skempton’s music.

What’s the music like?

Vocal writing has been a mainstay of Skempton’s in over recent years, the two largest pieces here setting poems by D.H. Lawrence. The term ‘setting’ is used advisedly, given Skempton’s approach is not one of expressive interpretation; rather one in which those individual words articulate a vocal line which, in its turn, articulates the instrumental writing so as to provide context.

Such is the premise on which Man and Bat operates – Lawrence’s highly descriptive, indeed discursive poem treated as a formal framework around which the ensemble unfolds a dialogue of constantly varying (not necessarily developing) motifs and phrases as provide an aural equivalent to what is being described. A not dissimilar approach is pursued in Snake, but here the musical treatment is audibly more static as befits a poem centred upon thought rather than action. This provides the concluding stage in a triptych preceded by a setting of Chris Newman’s self-deprecating A Day in 3 Wipes then, before it, the quizzical humour of Skempton’s own The Moon is Flashing which affords this diverse cycle its overall title.

The other two pieces are both instrumental, while being highly differentiated in themselves. Skempton has used generic titles only sparingly, his Piano Concerto predictable only in its avoidance of obvious models or precursors – the five movements (each lasting between two and four minutes) amounting to a series of vignettes in which the soloist variously combines with the ensemble, here a string quartet rather than string orchestra as originally conceived. Its title might suggest a natural piece with which to open, but Eternity’s Sunrise also makes for a persuasive rounding-off – a perfectly proportioned entity which amounts to a sequence of variations on an undulating theme apposite to the lines from William Blake that provided inspiration. Once again, Skempton’s writing is affecting through its sheer self-effacement.

Does it all work?

Very much so. From an output dominated by miniatures for the piano or accordion (his own instrument), Skempton has amassed a sizable and ever more varied catalogue from which the present release offers a judicious selection. It helps when the performances are so responsive to those qualities of emotional restraint and attention to detail that define the essence of this music. Roderick Williams and James Gilchrist can be relied upon for unforced insight, as too can the underrated pianist Tim Horton and the grouping of soloists which is Ensemble 360.

Is it recommended?

Indeed. Skempton now enjoys a substantial discography which features a number of releases devoted to his music (most notably those on the NMC label), to which should now be added this latest from the always enterprising First Hand Records. The sound has all the focus and detail necessary with this composer, whose succinctly informative notes on each piece are complemented by anecdotal observations from each of the soloists. Those who are new to Skempton will find this an ideal way into his compositional ethos, where little is as it seems.

Stream

Buy

For more information on this release and to purchase in multiple formats visit the Presto website

On record: Eve Daniell, Roderick Williams & Simon Lepper – John Pickard: Songs (Toccata)

John Pickard Songs Eve Daniell (soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano)

Pickard
The Borders of Sleep
Binyon Songs
The Phoenix

Toccata Classics TOCC0413 [61’01’’] English texts included
Producer/Engineer Michael Ponder
Recorded January 7th and 8th 2017 at St George’s, Bristol

Reviewed by Richard Whitehouse

What’s the story?

A further disc of music by John Pickard (b1963) from Toccata Classics, this time focussing on his output for voice and piano which to date comprises just three works, though these are no less personal than his more extensive contributions to the orchestral and chamber genres.

What’s the music like?

In his booklet notes, Pickard speaks of the difficulty in finding the right words for music thus intended. His works featuring baritone evince due discernment in those poets he has set. Not least the Binyon Songs – five settings of Laurence Binyon (1869-1943), the ubiquity of whose For the Fallen has detracted from a large and varied corpus. The present sequence is nothing if not representative – conveying abused benevolence in Nature, re-emergence in Sowing Seed and hectic transition in Autumn Song. The warm confessional of When all the world is hidden (a likely counterpart to Mahler’s Liebst du um Schönheit?) makes for a telling foil to the relatively expansive The Burning of the Leaves, affording closure through its insight into the immutable process of decay and renewal – an apotheosis as probing as it is profound.

Whereas the Binyon songs are a loosely related sequence, The Borders of Sleep is a song-cycle in formal intent and expressive scope. Here the texts are by Edward Thomas (1878-1917), considered a ‘wat poet’ (he died at Arras) though one whose poetry tends toward the speculative and even oblique. These concerns are pursued across the course of nine songs – taking in such as the sombre monotony of The Mill-Water, black irony of The Gallows and impermanence of Rain. The final settings comprise a fitting culmination: the mood of Last Poem, made concrete by its alternate title The sorrow of true love, transmuted into the fatalistic calm of Lights Out whose initial line also provides the title of this work and whose intimation of transcendence through the release of sleep affords its own benediction.

In contrast, the earliest piece here sets the earliest text, The Phoenix freely adapted from R. K. Gordon’s translation of a 10th-century Anglo-Saxon poem found in the Exeter Book. In fining down the expansive original (677 lines), Pickard has created a scena for soprano and piano where the evocation of this mythical bird’s demise and rebirth becomes metaphor for change and renewal; hence aligning it with the more recent poets featured here then, by extension, the underlying concerns to be found in even the most abstract among Pickard’s compositions.

Does it all work?

Very much so – not least when the performances are so attuned to the spirit and sensibility of Pickard’s music. A stalwart of English-song repertoire, Roderick Williams invests the Binyon and Thomas settings with unsparing emotional acuity, and if Eve Daniell experiences passing difficulty with pitching and intonation, her command of high-flown rhetoric in The Phoenix leaves no doubt as to her identity with this piece. Simon Lepper’s accompaniment is of the highest order, while recorded sound judges balance between voice and piano to perfection.

Is it recommended?

Indeed, and Pickard will hopefully add to his output for voice and piano in due course. In the meantime, acquire this disc and check out the composer’s orchestrations of his Binyon songs (also performed by Williams) on the English Music Records’ anthology Now Comes Beauty.

You can read more about this release on the Toccata Classics website, while for more on John Pickard, you can visit his website here

BBC Proms 2017 – I Fagiolini introduce Monteverdi to the Cadogan Hall

I Fagiolini / Robert Hollingworth (above) Photo (c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Monteverdi Cruda Amarilli; Sfogava con le stele; Longe da te, cor mio; Possente spirto from Orfeo, Chiome d’oro, Vorrei baciarti, o Filli

Roderick Williams Là ci darem la mano (BBC commission: world premiere)

Monteverdi Laudate pueri Dominum a 5 (concertato); Volgendo il ciel per l’immortal sentiero

Cadogan Hall, Monday 17 July 2017

Listen to this concert on the BBC iPlayer

As an introduction to the wide musical canon of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), there is surely no better place to start than with this vividly coloured concert from I Fagiolini and their quirky leader Robert Hollingworth.

They gave the Cadogan Hall – and BBC Radio 3 listeners – an insight into his daring harmonic world, showing just how keenly Monteverdi could respond to the challenges of word setting. They also showed how he could operate equally effectively in a reverent sacred setting, using the same imagination as in the wild and wonderful secular works.

Monteverdi, who was born 450 years ago to the year, is essentially a ‘Renaissance’ composer (the period running very roughly from 1400 to 1600) but he wrote in such an original way that even now his music sounds forward-looking.

The first trio of madrigals in this concert showed the composer’s skill with unaccompanied voices, and the clarity with which I Fagiolini could deliver them. Cruda Amarilli (from 2:14 on the broadcast link) Sfogava con le stele (5:17) and the darker Longe da te, cor mio (8:45) were all performed with the utmost clarity.

Monteverdi is also the acknowledged father of opera, with L’Orfeo (1607) the first example in the form. It is a remarkable work, and this lengthy excerpt (from 13:09 to 22:30) shows why. Tenor Matthew Long held his notes with impeccable control, but also showered them with the composer’s written embellishments, fluctuating the note ever so slightly to give extra expression. He was shadowed by violins (Rachel Podger and Kati Debretzeni) and cornetts (Gawain Glenton and Conor Hastings).

Back to the madrigals, and the seventh book Monteverdi published in Venice in 1613. Chiome d’oro (Golden tresses) (24:14) had an attractive introduction with the two violins dovetailed, a sign of things to come from the sopranos Anna Crookes and Ciara Hendrick, and their beautiful duet from 25:06. From 27:37-32:32 the spotlight changed to Hollingworth, whose nervous lover was characterised to perfection, and Kendrick, his intended. As the song progressed so he moved progressively closer to her, and by the end the two leaned in towards s kiss – a simple but extremely effective staging!

From 35:30-42:13 we heard a new work, Roderick Williams imaginatively setting Lorenzo da Ponte’s words used by Mozart in the famous Don Giovanni aria Là ci darem la mano, here set for a five-voice choir. Williams writes through the eyes and ears of Monteverdi and the results were intriguing and often laced with humour. In the middle he added a clever invention, the reading of a letter from Monteverdi while the singers tried to outdo each other in the background. The madrigal ended in a flurry of sexual tension.

Roderick Williams takes the applause with I Fagiolini and Robert Hollingworth after the world premiere of his interpretation of Là ci darem la mano.

Finally a pair of real wonders, a setting of Laudate pueri Dominum (from 44:33) and then an extended madrigal, Volgendo il ciel per l’immortal sentiero (52:42–1:03:13), designed for the praise of the Emperor in spite of the Thirty Years War. It is a mini-masterpiece, capped by the central dance (59:10) and its lilting rhythms begun by theorbo player Eligio Quinteiro. In these capable hands we enjoyed the complete purity of C major, beautifully spun by Monteverdi’s hand.

A wonderful concert, then, performed in the vivacious spirit that I Fagiolini bring to all their performances, celebrating the humour and quirky rhythms within the music, but bringing the seriousness of Monteverdi’s invention to play also. I urge you to hear it!

Ben Hogwood

Wigmore Mondays – Roderick Williams & Roger Vignoles in French art-song

Roderick Williams & Roger Vignoles – French Art Song

Fauré Mirages, Op 113 (1919)

Caplet Cinq ballades françaises de Paul Fort (1919-20)

Honegger Petits cours de morale (1941)

Poulenc Deux poèmes de Guillaume Apollinaire (1938); Parisiana (1954)

Listen to the BBC broadcast here

Written by Ben Hogwood

How heartening to have such an inventive hour-long recital of French art-song for a Monday lunchtime. In choosing a programme mostly comprising rarely performed works Roderick Williams and Roger Vignoles demonstrated both the depth of the genre and the rich variety of source texts on which the composers drew.

For this concert we had the intriguing combination of late Fauré, bright Caplet, silly Honegger and typically heart-on-sleeve Poulenc, and both baritone and pianist applied themselves to each with great enthusiasm and character. No stone was left unturned as they strove to bring the texts to life, helped as they were by some wildly differing moods of interpretation.

Late Fauré has a uniquely timeless approach, and the essentially slow Mirages are no exception. The composer’s last song cycle, it is a quartet of settings from the collection of the same name by Renée de Brimont. Williams and Vignoles inhabited a still world, especially in the remarkable passage in Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the water) (beginning 4:44 on the radio broadcast), the song almost stopping completely, seemingly in the middle of the lake, for sustained contemplation (from 8:08)

Still more affecting was Danseuse (Dancer), a haunting closing song that vividly portrays the languid movements of the dancer. With his single melodic line in the right hand Vignoles had the lilt just right, as did Williams in his controlled singing.

The Caplet cycle of Paul Fort setting was an altogether different story. André Caplet was a close friend of Debussy, and did a lot of work for him on editions and such. Debussy comes through to some of the harmonies and sleights of hand, but Caplet’s own style makes itself known and is fascinating. Here Vignoles was exceptional in his setting of the five scenes, with some incredibly tricky piano parts made to sound comparatively easy. The start of Cloche d’aube (Tolling dawn) (from 18:09) was a sparkling, brightly lit piano part, complemented by Williams’ sonorous tones.

Notre chaumière en Yveline (Our cottage in Yveline), the third song (from 23:38), was even more striking, falling over itself in rapture, while the glissando of the piano and soaring vocal of Songe d’une nuit d’été (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) (from 26:07) continued the rapt mood of the recently married composer and his domestic bliss. Only the final song, L’adieu en barque (Farewell from a boat) struck a note of caution with the refracted bell ringing conveyed so vividly by Vignoles.

The Honegger songs (from 34:46) were little picture postcards, lasting just over four minutes in total. Described as ‘a short course in morality’, they were written with some striking if rather odd observations by Jean Giraudoux, four of which centred on locations in the UK. Each one, given a woman’s name, had a certain charm – the wandering Jeanne, a rather brusque Adèle (35:25), the heady scents of Cècile (36:11), a strident Irène (37:03) and finally Rosemonde (37:48). Williams and Vignoles clearly enjoyed them, and were on sparkling form throughout.

Finally music by Poulenc, one of the great French songwriters, was given exemplary performances. We heard 2 poems by Guillaume Apollinaire, the colourful Dans le jardin d’Anna (In Anna’s Garden) (40:16), the increasingly bothered Allons plus vite (Move Along) (43:35) and the two Max Jacob poems making up Parisiana (Jouer du bugle (Playing the cornet)) from 46:44 and the short but riotous Vous n’écrivez plus? (You do not write any longer?) (48:15). Both performers were again wreathed in smiles as they enjoyed Poulenc’s direct emotional approach, and then, as a bonus, we had a reflective encore in the form of La Grenouillère (The Froggery).

Even Vignoles was silently singing along at this point, the two finding a strong bond in this little known but richly rewarding box of treats.

Further listening

One of my favourite discs of French song is from the baritone François le Roux, joined by a crack team of French soloists under Charles Dutoit. It includes Poulenc’s Le bal masqué and Le Bestiare cycles, along with the Rapsodie nègre: