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My heart is like a singing bird
The Artsong Collective
Recorded 1999/2000
Musaeus £14 incl p&p

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor has always a chequered career in the concert hall, peaking with the over-exposure of semi-staged performances of Hiawatha at the Royal Albert Hall between the wars which became virtually a Buffalo Bill's Wild West Circus of Music, and spawning an entertainment provided for music societies nationwide by one London concert agent with a group called Os-Ke-Non-Ton singing Red Indian songs. Coleridge-Taylor achieved fame by 25 (Richter grumpily conducted the second complete performance of the Hiawatha saga on the very evening of the disastrous Gerontius premiere in 1900) and was propelled into musical society by such eminent figures as Stanford. He was a tremendously hardworking musician, composing, conducting and teaching, all activities which bore him to an early grave when he contracted pneumonia at the age of 37 in 1912. His legacy includes virtually all forms of music of varying quality, but his songs have considerable charm. His style is not that of either the folksong revival which was spearheaded by Cecil Sharpe, Vaughan Williams or Percy Grainger, nor was it British in the Elgarian patriotic sense, if anything, one detects Brahms and Dvorak (unsurprising considering Stanford's influence) in his harmony and rhythms.

The Artsong Collective (basically two voices and piano with the flexibility to add other musicians as required) have put together an imaginative disc of 21 highly enjoyable songs for soprano or tenor, with the inspired idea of adding the violin sonata in the middle to vary the diet. The title of the CD is taken from the opening line of the second song, Christina Rosetti's A Birthday, the librettists varying from Shakespeare to, in this context, the rather confusingly named Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Standards of playing and singing are largely high (notably Richard Black's technically assured and sensitively textured accompaniments), though Moira Harris initially brings a little too much of her operatic experience to her tone colour (often a matter of tempering some excessive vibrato and damping overbright head voice) but then settles it all down to good effect. In Herrick's The Guest this operatic background is given appropriate full rein in the recitative followed by a dramatic account of the song itself. Wills Morgan is not always pin-point accurate in finding the core of his intonation or support, but has an excellent feel for the style and throws himself wholeheartedly into his contributions. Indeed both singers and Black manage to avoid any over-sentimentalising some of what is overtly Victorian/Edwardian salon music, but one occasionally yearns for the two of them to join together in a vocal duet. Meanwhile Wilson Collins, after a slightly unsettled start, makes an auspicious recording debut in the posthumously published violin sonata, an interesting work (full of Brahms and Dvorak) with a wonderfully contemplative conclusion. The spacious sound of the Hampshire church of St Martin's, East Woodbury takes a few tracks to get used to.

Christopher Fifield



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