I’ll Walk Beside You
Teddy Tahu Rhodes (bass-baritone)
Karin Schaupp (guitar)
Southern Cross Soloists
rec. 2018, Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Studio 420, Brisbane, Australia
Sung texts of the non-English songs with English translations enclosed. ABC CLASSICS481 6826 [72:23]
“The pieces on this album each describe a journey, physical, emotional or spiritual: from one land to another, life to death, wakefulness to sleep, love to loss, or despair to hope.
Songs themselves are also travellers. As people are displaced, deported or go in search of a better life, their music, whether from folk or classic tradition, travels with them. Music adapts to, influences, and is influenced by its new environment, and takes on new forms and meanings.
Music can also conjure powerful images of lost lands and loves. Through songs, memories are preserved, emotions stirred, and burdens shared. As Tchaikovsky wrote: ‘Music is indeed the most beautiful of all Heaven’s gifts to humanity wandering in the darkness.’ Our journeys are not taken alone.”
With those words Camilla Gregg opens the liner notes, and invites the reader and potential listener to a fascinating journey with forays to many lands and cultures and times. The guide is New Zealand born baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes who, after representing his country in the 1999 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, embarked on an important international career, which has taken him to all the big opera houses. He has also appeared on the concert platforms around the world. In January 2010 he substituted for an indisposed colleague as Escamillo in Carmen at three hours’ notice at the Metropolitan Opera, a performance that was telecast live in HD and later issued on DVD (review). He is assisted by some marvellous musicians collectively named Southern Cross Soloists and in one number the eminent guitarist Karin Schaupp, whose solo recital “Dreams” I reviewed fifteen years ago. With such superb musicians this disc should have been a tremendous success – but there is one hang-up: the singing. On the MET Carmen-DVD I had nothing but praise for his vocal capacity, but eight years is a long time in a busy opera singer’s career and here, when he is past fifty, the tone is rather worn and a lot of his singing is strained. He is still an expressive singer but the widening vibrato can be disturbing and there are several examples of quite unsophisticated – sometimes intentionally so – and more than once unnecessarily full-throated. The beautiful Roses of Picardy is bawled to pieces, for instance. As an interpretation Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh, performed as written with piano accompaniment, is stylish and sensitive, and of course there are places where a more robust approach is called for, but the general impression is that he too often over-sings.
But this doesn’t mean that the disc is completely ruled out. The repertoire is thrilling, some of the songs are well-known but performed in interesting arrangements, specially written for this production by Michael Bakrnčev, Joe Twist and John Rotar. A lot is unknown, to me at least.
The text of the opening song, On Raglan Road was written in 1946 by Patrick Kavanagh and twenty years later folk singer John Kelly set it to a 17th-century Irish air. The song is charmingly folksy. She Was Beautiful also stems from the British Isles but is of more recent origin. Stanley Myers wrote it as a guitar piece for a 1970 movie, The Walking Stick, where it was played by John Williams. Eight years later it appeared again, as Cavatina, in The Deer Hunter, and became eternally popular among guitarists. But long before that Cleo Laine had written a text to the melody, He Was Beautiful, which she recorded, and now Teddy Tahu Rhodes sings it from a male point of view.
Then we move around the world and land in the Maori culture, where the political leader Paraire Tomoana in 1916 wrote Hoes rā te waka nei (Paddle this canoe) to support the troops heading for the First World War. The text has later been slightly changed and become a love song. It’s a beautiful melody in ¾-time. Botany Bay started out as a show song in London in 1885, but it is even older than that. The show moved to Melbourne the following year and is probably long forgotten, but this song has stayed as a much-loved folk song.
I’ll Walk Beside You sounds like it belongs to the Victorian parlour songs, but is actually much later. 1936 says the liner notes, 1939 says Wikipedia. Anyway it was sung by John McCormack and it also featured in a 1943 British film with the same title.
Comrades of Mine, composed by Australian William James, was published in London in 1922. The song tells about a soldier longing to be buried under ‘a tall gum tree’. The writer of the text had never been to Australia but managed to describe the scenery credibly.
Also from the First World War, like Hoes rā, comes Roses of Picardy, another perennial favourite, and the best-known composition by Haydn Wood, who specialised in light orchestral music but also wrote about 180 songs, this one for his wife.
Moving eastward we encounter Pyotr Tchaikovsky, who besides symphonies, a couple of popular concertos and three great ballets, also was a prolific song writer. None but the Lonely Heart is of course a setting of Goethe lyrics and is no doubt his best-known song, at least outside Russia.
One of the best-known African-American spirituals is certainly Deep River. The river in question is in the Jordan, the borderline between this world and the next, but also represents the Ohio River, the borderline between the free people and the slaves.
Klezmer is secular Jewish folk music, played at weddings and other celebrations. The dances, played here, are composed by Michael Bakrnčev, but based on a traditional dance. It opens slowly, with a clarinet in the lead, then follows a fast and lively dance, but the clarinet is still in focus, which is characteristic for the Klezmer music. This is in a way the most fascinating of the 18 numbers on the disc.
Goin’ Home is sometimes described as an American spiritual – I once had an EP with Paul Robeson, describing it thus, but the originator is Antonin Dvorak, from the slow movement of his Symphony no. 9. It was composed during his sojourn in the US and possibly there are influences from real spirituals, but the arrangement here follows the structure of the symphony movement very closely. It is a touching arrangement with emotionally charges pauses and it is sung with suitable restraint.
Eriskay (Eric’s Island) is a small island in the Outer Hebrides. It is famous for the Eriskay Pony and for Eriskay Love Lilt, collected by Marjory Kennedy-Fraser and published in 1909. The piano accompaniment describes the movement of the water in the same way as Mendelssohn does in his Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal’s Cave.
Back to Australia and the Christmas carol Still, Still, Still. But the melody comes from Salzburg in Austria and the text describes Mary settling her infant. In the accompaniment we hear church bells.
Back to the water again and one of the great revival hymns Shall We Gather at the River, written as far back as 1864 by American Baptist minister Robert Lowry. There we hear the water again in the piano and the woodwind imitate birds.
I have already mentioned Schubert’s Du bist die Ruh, which is presented in Schubert’s original setting. It is stylishly and sensitively sung.
The original to the Maori song Pō atarau (On a moonlit night) is a piano piece from 1913, Swiss Cradle Song by Australian Clement Saunders. It is truly beautiful! Shenandoah probably brings us back to America in the early 18th century and fur trappers who met Native Americans. There are obviously several versions and in some of them a trapper falls in love with the daughter of the great chief Shenandoah. Well-known it is, irrespective of origin.
For the finale we return to Scotland, and this time not the archipelago, as in Eriskay Love Lilt, by the mainland and the beautiful Loch Lomond. A soldier in the Jacobite Rising in 1745 is to be executed and he longs back home to Scotland. We hear bagpipes at the opening and then a funeral procession growing in intensity.
It has been a fascinating journey and a thrilling experience to find that songs from all over the world have journeyed this way and that. Music is after all a universal language.
I’m sorry I didn’t like the singing as much as I perhaps should have, but the programme has alerted me to the multiplicity of musical expressions. I must also add that I have drawn a lot of the information from Camilla Gregg’s comprehensive and well-researched liner notes.
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