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Alec ROTH (b. 1948)
Sometime I Sing
My lute and I (2011) [27:51]
Invocation for solo guitar (2005) [4:40]
Dark Night (2005/2008) [4:50]
Three Night Songs (2011) [8:01]
Autumnal (2010) [4:01]
English Folk Songs (2008) [11:52]
Lights Out (2011) [4:21]
Mark Padmore (tenor); Morgan Szymanski (guitar)
rec. 16-18 November 2011, St. Alban’s Church. Holborn, London. DDD
English texts included
SIGNUM CLASSICS SIGCD332 [65:37]

I’ve heard quite a lot of music by Alec Roth in recent years, both on disc and in concert, and I’ve been consistently impressed. Here two artists who have done a lot to champion his music renew a partnership on disc that has already included one fine release of Roth’s music (review). In fact much of the music on this new disc was either written for Mark Padmore and the Mexican guitarist, Morgan Szymanski or has been revised for them to perform.
 
The most substantial work on their programme was composed for them. My lute and I is a cycle of nine songs in which Alec Roth sets poems by the Elizabethan poet and diplomat, Thomas Wyatt (1503-1542). The songs are consistently pleasing and attractive and sound to be splendidly written for Padmore’s voice, which the vocal line fits like a glove, and for the guitar. It seems to me that in this cycle Roth has very successfully re-interpreted and re-imagined the Elizabethan lute song for the twenty-first century. I’ve noticed a fine melodic strain in his pieces that I’ve heard to date and that trait is well evidenced here - and, indeed, throughout the programme. The music is delightful to hear and suits the words very well indeed.
 
I know from hearing him in concert, not least in Britten’s War Requiem (review), that Mark Padmore has plenty of strength and steel in his voice when necessary. Here, however, he adapts most intelligently and sensitively to a much more intimate assignment. So from the very start, in ‘Sigh and Moan’ - all the titles for the songs are the composer’s own - his tone is essentially light and sappy. The second song, ‘Tell Me’, is one of those that calls for the singer to deploy two different voices, in the manner of settings of Housman’s ‘Is my team ploughing?’; so Padmore alternates a lithe, innocent tone of voice with the Voice of Experience, which part he delivers with a mild rustic accent. The fourth song, ‘A Kiss’, features very sparing accompaniment - Roth is not afraid to minimise his accompaniment on several occasions in the cycle - and Padmore brings the words vividly to life. The eighth song gives the CD its title. This is a touching, melancholic song. The music seems ideally suited to Padmore’s timbre and he spins the line with enviable control. This is another song in which the accompaniment is discreet. I thought it one of the loveliest things on the whole disc. The final song, ‘Now Cease’ is quite clever in that during three of the verses Roth revisits the music of the very first song, thus emphasising the poet’s admonition ‘My lute be still, for I have done’. This is an excellent and most appealing set of songs which I enjoyed very much; the performance is surely definitive.
 
Roth has collaborated on several musical ventures with the distinguished author, Vikram Seth, who has now become a close friend. Indeed, Seth has chronicled their collaboration on three works in a book, The Rivered Earth (2011). There are four Seth settings in this programme, including the very first one that Roth made, Dark Night, which we hear in a 2008 revision for tenor and guitar, made for Padmore and Szymanski. Three Night Songs, written for these performers, contains music pared down to essentials; I don’t believe there’s a wasted note. I enjoyed listening to all four of these Seth settings though I’ll be honest and say that I don’t feel I’ve come fully to terms with them yet as I haven’t quite got to grips with Seth’s poetry, though I’m sure this will happen.
 
Two of the pieces, Autumnal and Lights Out have links with Roth’s highly entertaining work for soloists, choir and orchestra, A Time to Dance which impressed me very much when I reviewed its second performance in 2012. A version of Autumnal for alto solo, male chorus and orchestra forms part of the third section of A Time to Dance while Edmund Thomas’s poemLights Out, one of Roth’s favourites, he says, features in Part IV of the work. I don’t know whether these solo versions were composed before A Time to Dance - judging by the dates of composition that may be the case - but I love the intimacy and sensitivity of the small-scale setting of Autumnal while in this version of Lights Out the spare textures of voice and guitar produce a fine intensity, Padmore singing this latter song with particular eloquence.
 
I enjoyed the five folk song arrangements very much. I sometimes feel that Britten, in his celebrated folk song arrangements, provided over-elaborate accompaniments which draw attention away from these essentially simple tunes and their messages. That’s emphatically not the case here. Roth’s guitar accompaniments are subtle and sensitive and complement the fine original melodies beautifully. Almost invariably the accompaniments vary from stanza to stanza, if only slightly, which I like very much. Padmore and Szymanski do them splendidly; I particularly relished the way Padmore tells the story in ‘The Brisk Young Widow’ and the performance of ‘The Turtle Dove’, with its melancholic, quintessentially English melody, is moving.
 
Szymanski, who accompanies Padmore throughout with great finesse and sensitivity, gets his own moment in the spotlight with Invocation, an atmospheric and gently beguiling little nocturne.
 
This is a delightful disc containing some highly accomplished and very imaginative music, beautifully written for voice and guitar. This is Music for Pleasure. Alec Roth must be delighted with the superb performances that his music receives from these two sensitive and skilled performers. Signum continue to champion Roth’s music most effectively for which they deserve great credit. Is it too much to hope also for a recording of A Time to Dance?
 
John Quinn
 

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