When a composer, often after an interval of many years, returns to an incomplete score with the purpose of finishing it, the results often display a real and palpable delight in the process of rediscovery. One thinks of the opening scene of the Third Act of Wagner’s Siegfried
, where the composer, after a gap of ten years or more, produced what is arguably the most dramatic of all the confrontations in the Ring
. Its orchestration surpasses in richness and variety anything that had preceded it. Similarly, when Eric Fenby went to France to act as amanuensis for the crippled and blind Frederick Delius in the terminal stage of syphilis, one of the first things that Delius asked him to do was to work on the conclusion of his setting of Ernest Dowson’s Cynara
. This had originally been designed as one of the Songs of Sunset
, but in this solo song with orchestra Delius comprehensively surpassed any of the writing in the earlier work. Fenby has left an enthralling account - preserved, complete with Fenby’s imitations of Delius’s working methods, on a fascinating EMI recording
- of the way in which Delius sought a newly evocative harmony for the phrase “Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! The night is thine”. This produced one of the most heart-breaking chromaticisms in any of the composer’s works (track 4, 9.13).
The piece was first performed by Beecham in 1929, but he never recorded it, and this is only the third time that we have been given the miniature masterpiece on disc. The two previous incarnations, sung by John Shirley-Quirk (with Sir Charles Groves conducting
) and Sir Thomas Allen (with Fenby himself on the podium
) were fully worthy of the piece. Roderick Williams here joins their number. His voice is slightly softer-grained and more lyrical than those of his predecessors, which suits Dowson’s rather pallid verses well. The orchestral playing under Sir Mark Elder is if anything better integrated than in the earlier recordings. The peculiar percussive phrases with xylophone as Delius describes Cynara’s dancing are less prominent (track 4, 6.58).
If this performance of Cynara
is the highlight of this disc, this may well be because the recording made in a broadcast studio is free of the difficulties of live performance which in various ways afflict the other two works. We are hardly short of good performances of Sea Drift
in the catalogues, and it has to be observed that Roderick Williams, with his beautifully lyrical tone, lacks the sheer metal and heft of singers such as John Shirley-Quirk
or Bryn Terfel
. Williams gave a superlative performance of the solo baritone role in the Vaughan Williams Sea Symphony
at the opening night of this year’s Proms - his reading of On the beach at night alone
was simply chilling - but he seems to be rather out of sorts in some of the passages of Sea Drift.
The chorus, like Williams a little backwardly placed, manage the fiendishly difficult unaccompanied chromatic passage at the centre of the work without any suspicion of drifting out of tune. That said, there are times when Williams, with his softer-focused voice, sounds awkward - notably in the phrase “The solitary guest from Alabama” (track 3, 8.32) which feels decidedly uneasy. One suspects that, if this had been a studio recording, the passage would have been subject to a re-take.
Similar problems arising from live recording are apparent in the Holst Hymn of Jesus
which opens the disc. The distant semi-chorus are just a little too far away to make their proper impact in some of their counterpoints. Their persistent Amens
are almost obscured by the main chorus and orchestra (as at track 2, 5.56). The opening plainchant setting, where Holst sets up a repeated pattern in the orchestra against which the “Vexilla regis” is declaimed freely, causes problems of co-ordination. It should proceed at a slightly slower speed than the accompanying ostinato; Holst’s vocal score implies this. Here it is somewhat faster, presumably led by a separate sub-conductor from Elder (track 1, 3.19). Elder’s speeds elsewhere are again somewhat faster than Boult’s - Boult conducted the first performance, and so presumably his tempi met with the composer’s approval. Even so, the added sense of excitement which Elder achieves is thrilling and enjoyable. However as a central performance of the Hymn
(apart from Boult) both Sir Charles Groves
and Richard Hickox
- both achieving a better-focused balance between the onstage and offstage choirs - are preferable.
Last year I gave a warm welcome to Elder’s recording of Elgar’s The Apostles
- this despite some concerns about a couple of textual decisions in his reading. One is pleased to note that that disc has been nominated for a Gramophone
award. This collection of vocal works by the two other major British composers who died in the year 1934 is not quite in that same league; but the performance of Cynara
is something quite special, and particularly welcome as an addition to the ridiculously small representation of the work on disc.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Previous reviews: John Quinn
~~ Michael Cookson
~~ Gwyn Parry-Jones
Holst discography & review index