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Sing a song of seasons Song Cycles A Child’s Garden of Verses (R L Stevenson): Nine Haiku (Keith Bosley): Border Boyhood (MacDiarmid)
The Artsong Collective
Recorded 1996
MUSAEUS MZCD100 [75' 15"]
(Obtainable from The Ronald Stevenson Society 3 Chamberlain Road, Edinburgh EH10 4DL or direct from Musaeus)

Ronald Stevenson at 73 is one of Britain's eminent composers and an expert craftsman, to which the three song cycles on this imaginative disc testify. His ability to colour and illustrate his carefully selected texts, particularly in the piano accompaniments, is remarkable; he is also instinctively specific in his choice and the way he arranges the order of his selected poems from Robert Louis Stevenson's (no relation) 'Child's Garden of Verses', focussing on such childhood physical experiences as rain, sunshine, bed, the swing, evening and woodsmoke. His musical style is attractively compelling, exploiting wide intervals in both voice and piano part, the harmonic language entirely accessible in this 1984 BBC commission to mark the author's centenary a year later. You can feel the heat of the summer sun and wrap up against the misty Edinburgh nights in his mood painting. When given such committed performances as here by the three members of the Artsong Collective (Moira Harris, soprano, Wills Morgan, tenor, and Richard Black, piano) one wonders why Stevenson's engaging music is so little heard.

Despite the potentially intimidating prospect of fourteen minutes of Japanese haiku (three lines of five, seven and five syllables respectively) and its suggestive use of pentatonic and heptatonic scales completing a twelve-note sound spectrum, this cycle (written in 1971) has nothing to fear for the listener. Moira Harris' soprano is suggestively oriental, despite an occasional struggle with some of the longer-breathed lines in 'Gone away', while avoiding any Madam Butterfly approach. Her singing in the Nocturne and the Epilogue is particularly idiomatic, Black's accompaniment finely judged here but even more so in Spring/The Blossoming Cherry.

The final cycle, 'Border Boyhood' to words by Hugh MacDiarmid, was commissioned by the tenor Peter Pears and given its first performance at the 1971 Aldeburgh Festival, though fortunately Wills Morgan here betrays no hint of imitating Pears' singularly identifiable voice. It may be the toughest music at times (both for performer and listener) but it is nevertheless all highly attractive, and, especially in the beautifully atmospheric textures of 'A celebration of colour', projected with impeccable diction (a positive Pears trait which all singers, regardless of voice or gender could do well to imitate). This song leads without a break into the piano interlude (a Nocturne with the subtitle 'The hushed song') and Black duly seizes his chance to shine in this mix of Chopin and Szymanowski. 'The Nut Trees' shatters the mood of tranquility followed by 'Fighting Spirit' in which Morgan occasionally sounds ill at ease (some taxingly forced sounds) but both he and Black give a carefully judged account of the final fugue for voice and piano in which Stevenson explores different vocal effects in different areas of the voice. One final virtuosic display by Black is followed by the positive and forthright phrase 'my childhood was an incredibly happy one' from a more confidently robust Morgan to conclude this fascinating and highly commended disc.

Christopher Fifield



See also review by Colin Scott Sutherland

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