Peter LINDROTH (b. 1950)
The Wilfred Owen Songs
The Send-Off [4:05]
The Show [6:06]
Dulce et Decorum Est [4:31]
Arms and the Boy [3:37]
I Saw His Red Mouth’s Crimson [2:35]
The Chances [2:34]
The Parable of the Old Man and the Young [3:09]
The Next War [3:16]
Six O’Clock in Princes Street [3:28]
John Erik Eleby (bass-baritone)
Mats Jansson, Yoriko Asahara (piano)
rec. 2018/19, Gäddviken, Nacka, Sweden
STERLING CDM3005-2 [53:25]
Like, I suspect, most products of the 20th- and 21st-century UK education systems, I first came across Wilfred Owen’s war poetry at school. It made a powerful effect on me. How could it not? Even an inexperienced reader must surely sense something of Owen’s exceptional literary abilities, visceral honesty, and moral and physical courage. Allied to which, of course, once you have heard it, you can never get out of your mind the devastating fact that he was killed in battle, at 25, a mere week before the Armistice. Examples of the obscenely wasteful futility of the First World War do not come any more powerful than that.
By contrast, the Swedish composer Peter Lindroth tells us in the booklet accompanying this CD that he only encountered Owen relatively late in life. He does not say exactly when, but one assumes he was in his fifties at the time. Certainly these twelve songs were composed in 2007 and 2008. “The poems bowled me over completely”, Lindroth admits. “I knew immediately that I had to set this poetry to music”. An altogether understandable reaction, it seems to me, and proof – if any were needed – that Owen is by no means just a young person’s poet.
Now if I had the ability to set Owen’s poetry to music, I think probably the first poems I would chose might be ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and ‘Strange Meeting’ – the first for the almost limitless opportunities it offers for onomatopoeic word-painting (bells, guns, prayers, choirs, shells, bugles, you name it), and the second for the sheer theatricality of the encounter between two dead soldiers (“I am the enemy you killed, my friend”). Benjamin Britten, of course, set both of these poems to great effect in his War Requiem. I may be wrong, but I suspect it might be significant that Lindroth chooses not to set these two poems, or indeed any others which might conceivably lead to any obvious or cheap musical effects imposed – as it were – from the outside. On his
website, he states that “music has to come from within and it must express as well as arouse thoughts and emotions”. That chimes well with what I think I am hearing on this disc. Lindroth is giving us an account – a conscientiously, sometimes searingly honest one – of his reaction to these great poems. He does not seek to illustrate them, underline them, add to them or improve on them (how could you?), but attempts simply to express in musical terms his creative, and re-creative, response to them. And that response is not that of a school pupil, or of someone primarily concerned “to arouse thoughts and emotions”. Rather, it is the response of a mature, sophisticated artist in full command of his craft.
I should perhaps make clear at this point that Lindroth’s Owen settings do very much constitute a cycle, intended to be performed as such in concert. My listing of the titles of individual poems above is provided not because these are twelve independent songs, but simply so readers might see which poems Lindroth has chosen to sett. The lengthy setting of ‘Asleep’ may be intended to function as a kind of hinge, and (insofar as such a concept has any validity in Owen’s wartime world) as an oasis of repose at the mid-point of the cycle. Certainly the figure insisted upon with almost minimalist persistence in the piano accompaniment (here, as in only one other song, scored for four hands rather than two) has a kind of hypnotic, almost soporific effect. This acts both as welcome relief after the profoundly dramatic and disturbing setting of ‘Saw his Round Mouth’s Crimson’ (with its frighteningly bellicose, gunfire accompaniment) and as preparation for the mounting tension we are about to encounter in the cycle’s second half.
The cycle’s prime unifying factor is, of course, Lindroth’s own voice. It is not a voice I find entirely easy to define, but its language is predominantly tonal, unproblematically approachable, and both sincere and serious. It is individual without being ground-breakingly original. It has certain mannerisms, such as occasional very wide leaps or descents, sudden and unheralded changes in tempo, or an approach to repetition that at times recalls the processes of Minimalism. It is, however, confident enough to absorb influences from a variety of styles without jeopardizing its essential independence. In general terms, of course, Lindroth is indebted to the Central and Northern European art song traditions. In certain songs, we see him using particular musical forms or genres for expressive, sometimes indeed ironic effect. So his setting of the heart-breaking ‘Arms and the Boy’ has appropriate reminiscences of a lullaby; the penny-in-the-slot cant of conventional warmongers is nailed by his use, in ‘Dulce et decorum Est’, of the musical language of plainchant; the working-class characters of ‘The Chancers’ analyse the possible fates of their comrades to a melody that is palpably inspired by folksong; the ‘Insensibility’ of those condemned in the poem of that name is characterized in music that seems part popular song, part Joplin rag; and ‘Six O’Clock in Princes Street’, which I consider a rather difficult poem, inspires in Lindroth a language that seems influenced both by the Blues and by a somewhat chimerical version of modernism. Is it Satie, the Second Viennese School, neither, both? The fact that you cannot always put your finger on this kind of thing is in itself a sure sign that you are dealing with a composer who, in the end, is able to articulate precisely what he personally wants to say.
I have not yet said anything about the performers. Suffice it to say that John Erik Eleby is quite magnificent. He is described in the booklet as a bass-baritone, which is – to my mind at least – an often problematic term that can cover a multitude of sins. Is a bass-baritone someone who is both bass and baritone, or someone who is not really either? Well, Eleby is emphatically both. More accurately, perhaps, I hear him as a true bass with a considerable – no, phenomenal – upward extension. He certainly needs this when coping with Lindroth’s often demanding scoring. I see that his regular roles at the Royal Opera in Stockholm include Sarastro and Sparfucile, and I can imagine him dealing with their bottom Fs with consummate ease. At the same time, however, he has the baritonal “squillo” required for certain key moments in Lindroth’s score – such as the profoundly dramatic ejaculation “Gas, GAS! Quick, boys!” about a third of the way through ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. I have not been able to ascertain how old Eleby is, but he is clearly a good deal nearer the end of his career than its beginning. Initially I thought this might be a problem, given that his voice does not sound remotely like that of a poet who died at the age of 25. But I was soon persuaded. Eleby does not wobble, is in full command of his vocal resources, and is well able to pay appropriate attention to the nuances of Owen’s poetry without disturbing the vocal line. His English is not perfect: he mispronounces, for example, ‘woe’, ‘wreath’, ‘else’ and a few other words. But generally his pronunciation is good, and his articulation clear. At his side, Mats Jansson is a highly eloquent, if at time slightly too loud, accompanist. I wondered at times whether the decidedly operatic scale of Eleby’s voice might have led Jansson into something of a false sense of security when it came to adapting his volume to fit that of his partner. Or maybe the recording balance is a wee bit iffy. In any event, neither linguistic nor technical reservations are such as materially to affect anyone’s enjoyment of this disc.
In sum, then, I am very glad to have made the acquaintance both of this composer and of this singer. Neither has hitherto had much exposure outside Sweden. Eleby has not, as far as I can tell, recorded any of his major operatic roles, and Lindroth is represented on disc only by two collections of chamber music: Nosag NOSAGCD146, issued in 2010, and Sterling CDM3003, from 2017. Both are transparently artists of distinction who have something of value to say. Add to this the sheer pleasure involved in re-encountering Owen’s poetry and in seeing how a 21st-century composer responds to it, and you have something of a winner on your hands. Settings of Owen are not exactly everyday occurrences. Indeed, other than Britten, hardly any major composer has taken on the very real challenge of setting poetry which, even a century or so after its composition, packs the most powerful of punches on its own, purely literary terms. All the more credit to Lindroth, then, for taking on this Sisyphean task and for creating a work that both encapsulates his response to Owen and consistently encourages others to join him on that journey.