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Michael CSÁNYI-WILLS (b.1975)
Three Songs: Budapest, 19441 (2009-15) [16.06]
Six AE Housman Songs2 (2009-13) [39.38]
Elegy for our time1 (2015) [5.55]
Ilona Domnich1 (soprano), Nicky Spence2 (tenor), Jacques Imbrailo2 (baritone), Chris McKay2 (horn)
Londamis Ensemble/Mark Eager
rec. St Augustine’s Church, Highbury, London, 4-5 August 2015

I reviewed with great enthusiasm (for the Seen and Heard section of this site) the first performance of Michael Csányi-Wills’s setting of Housman’s On the idle hill of summer given by the Welsh Sinfonia conducted by Mark Eager at a concert in January 2013. My reading of the score (which the composer had been kind enough to send me beforehand) had not prepared me for such a lushly textured and emotional response to the text. In conversation with the composer after the concert I remarked upon the fact that Housman’s poetry, at one time so popular a subject for musical setting, appeared to have fallen rather by the wayside in more recent times – possibly because of its seemingly inextricable links with the music of the now unfashionable English pastoral school. The composer replied that he had always felt an affinity with Housman, and indeed had made a number of other settings over the years. I am therefore pleased to be able to welcome a disc which contains no fewer than six Housman songs, including the aforementioned On the idle hill of summer with its scoring for tenor, horn and strings reflecting the fact that the Britten Serenade for the same forces had formed part of that concert in 2013.

The disc opens with three songs subtitled Budapest, 1944 which have a personal and family significance for the composer in that the final song, The last letter, is a setting of the composer’s great-grandmother’s letter to her children before her disappearance from her Budapest flat in October 1944. The first two songs, written later, reflect the horrors of that time: the first a falsely reassuring postcard sent by a Holocaust victim to her relations, and the second a despairing diary entry written by another member of the composer’s family. The music speaks of affection and mourning, rather than of violence, protest or despair; as I have come to expect from Csányi-Wills’s music over the years, it is expertly crafted and redolent of tense underlying emotion. The composer made a transcription for cello and orchestra of The last letter which was given by the Welsh Sinfonia at a concert in November 2013; at the time, reviewing the performance, I expressed a wish that a recording of the work could be made available. Here it is, for which much thanks. All three songs are given here in German translations where appropriate, for reasons the composer explains in his extensive and informative booklet note; Ilona Domnich sings them simply and expressively, and full texts and translations are provided in the booklet.

In his note Csányi-Wills states that he wished to express the deeper emotions in Housman that was not always present in earlier settings of the poetry. The first three are settings for baritone, and Jacques Imbrailo adds further laurels to his crown (already confirmed by his recorded operatic appearances in such works as Britten’s Billy Budd and Boughton’s The Queen of Cornwall) in his expressive handling of the texts; his delivery of lines such as “Dinner will be cold” chills the blood. On moonlit heath is even more romantically expressive, with the line “the morning clocks will ring” evoking the same cold atmosphere that we find Vaughan Williams’s In summertime on Bredon from On Wenlock Edge. Carpenter’s son, the third song, is a violent protest by the man condemned to death by hanging – a poem that apart from C W Orr’s setting in 1923 seems to have been ignored by English composers of the early twentieth century. Csányi-Wills conjures up a real storm from the orchestra, but Imbrailo rides it triumphantly.

The three songs for tenor are likewise superbly taken by Nicky Spence. On the idle hill of summer, with more substantial orchestral forces supplying richer and more full-bodied textures than in the first performance, benefits from an eerie horn solo from Chris McKay at “far and near and low and louder” over ponticello strings. In my original review I noted that “the writing is sometimes a little over-busy”; but I no longer felt that objection with a larger body of strings, where individual lines that had stood out before were absorbed into the general atmosphere. White in the moon restores calm with some beautifully poised woodwind playing, and a delicate harp making its presence felt at the line “My feet upon the moonless dust”. I note that the composer adds an additional phrase in the last verse – “The moon stands blank above” – to allow for a repeat of the penultimate line. The final song in the cycle, As through the wild green hills of Wye, sets a poem that appears to have been ignored by all previous composers – to judge by the listing on the admittedly not totally comprehensive listing on the valuable website. It is a long poem – 36 lines, not divided into individual stanzas – but I cannot see what it has been neglected. The depiction of the train which takes the narrator to London produces a heady sense of momentum, and the final lines achieve a form of solemn resolution. Throughout all these songs I observed with enjoyment the composer’s natural sense of rhythmic declamation, which means that the words are nearly always crystal clear and recourse to the texts in the booklet is generally unnecessary.

The poem Elegy for our time by Jessica d’Este continues Housman’s themes of “death and the waste of innocent, vulnerable youth”; it was written in memory of her granddaughter who died in a car crash at the age of 23. The music is much more chilly than in any of the other works on this disc, with the woodblocks executing a solo like a slightly demented clock ticking away the seconds. It perhaps shows Csányi-Wills moving into a new direction, although the sense of emotional engagement remains as strong as ever. (Incidentally, the text as given in the booklet does not quite reflect what is sung – the word “and” is omitted from the line “robust and enough itself to flourish” – I suspect the booklet text is incorrect here.) Ilona Domnich drains all the warmth and vibrato from her voice at the lines “extinguished talent, lifeless, temperance, dust” – and the result is chillingly intense. At the end the woodblocks return like a rattle of departing breath.

I had not previously encountered the Londamis Ensemble, although the list of players discloses some names familiar from concerts by the Welsh Sinfonia; it is a somewhat larger body than that chamber orchestra, which gives an added richness to the composer’s often impassioned scoring. Mark Eager secures a performance of real quality from them, and the recording places the voices slightly forward in a resonant balance. This is a recording of real value which should appeal not only to those who like Housman and are interested in settings of his poetry, but anyone who wants to encounter modern music which makes an immediate emotional connection to the listener.
Paul Corfield Godfrey



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