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Peter LINDROTH (b. 1950)
The Wilfred Owen Songs (2007-2008)
John Erik Eleby (bass-baritone), Mats Jansson (piano), Yoriko Asahara (piano, third hand)
rec. 2018/2019, Gäddviken, Nacka, Sweden
STERLING CDM3005-2 [53:25]

The iconic settings of the poems of Wilfred Owen, killed in the closing days of the First World War on the Western Front, are surely those of Benjamin Britten incorporated into his 1961 War Requiem which established an international reputation both in live performances throughout the world and a best-selling recording in the 1960s. Although these settings are closely bound into the text of the Latin requiem in a manner that militates against their being treated in isolation – the horrific grandeur of Be slowly lifted up leading into the Dies irae, the interweaving of Futility with the Lacrymosa, the subtle blend of the Agnus Dei and most shattering of all the shell-shocked numbness of Strange meeting succeeding the battlefield eruptions of the Libera me – Britten’s treatment of Owen’s bitter poetry is at once excoriating and consolatory in a manner that defies any composer bold enough to enter into competition with him. And that list includes Britten himself (in the Nocturne), Bliss (in Morning Heroes) and many other composers.

All of which makes it even more amazing that, according to Peter Lindroth’s own brief autobiographical note with this release, he had never encountered the poetry of Wilfred Owen before 2007 when he embarked on his own series of settings. Indeed he states that he only came to Owen after exploration of works by Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, Brooke, Rosenberg, Barbusse, Brittain and Woolf since Owen’s poetry was “the hardest to find” – a statement that simply defies comprehension. In fact Lindroth’s collection of poems only coincides with Britten’s selection of nine at three points – The parable of the old man and the young (“, The next war (“Out there we’ve walked quite friendly up to death”), and Futility (“Move him into the sun”).

There are occasional infelicities of word-setting – the word “uncoiled” accented on the first syllable, for example (track 2) or the uncomfortable treatment of tricky words like “scimitars” (track 6) or “arithmetic” (track 8) – but Lindroth clearly empathises with Owen’s sometimes violent bitterness and sarcasm; the piano sometimes erupts into expostulation, but for much of the time simply underpins the vocal line reflecting the meaning of the words in a very wide-ranging tessitura extending from the lowest reaches of the bass voice to strenuous passages high above the stave. The sheer weight of declamation is positively overwhelming in Dulce et decorum est (track 3), one of Owen’s most dramatic poems and one which Britten presumably deliberately avoided, although Lindroth’s treatment of the ironic final lines is superbly understated. In Insensibility (track 8) Lindroth even risks an ironic imitation of music hall in a vein that recalls Satie or Joplin, whose sudden eruption of high spirits comes as quite a jolt after the final line of The chances (track 7).

John Erik Eleby has a rich bass-baritone resonance; and his English delivery, although not always idiomatic, is certainly no worse than that of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in the recording of the Britten War Requiem. The higher reaches of the writing lead him to a certain wildness in phrases like “great bells in wild train-loads” (track 1) or “scabs of plagues” or “in terror what that sight might mean” (track 2) and the occasional lapses into spoken delivery on certain words let alone the near-screaming high notes on “Gas” (track 3). This is not comfortable writing for the voice, and indeed lyricism would be quite out of place; but then Eleby brings a beautifully sustained mezza voce to bear in Asleep (track 6) which completely avoids any impression of false sentimentality. He even manages to encompass the Kiplingesque “lower class”accents of The chances without sounding like Eliza Doolittle.

Mats Jansson’s accompaniment seems flawless, and is well balanced with the voice in a suitably resonant acoustic; the two longest songs – Asleep and Insensibility – are given in versions including a third hand on the piano. Jansson rises superbly to the rampaging depiction of aggression in songs such as I saw his round mouth’s crimson (track 5) where the smashing discords which surround the voice’s declamation positively seem to invite orchestral setting. The movement into the quiet opening of Asleep (track 6) is very moving, and the sustained almost minimalist movement of the three-hand accompaniment underpins the text admirably.

I initially approached this cycle of Owen songs with a degree of scepticism, wondering how Lindroth could bring something new to the poetry that had not already been anticipated by Britten and others. I found instead a decidedly different approach, with a series of settings that brought a whole variety of textures and interpretations to bear. The presentation gives us little background to the songs themselves, but does supply the complete text of the poems (in English only). The photographs by the composer of landscapes at Ors (where Owen was commemorated in 2018) are dismally functional.

The final four tracks of this disc are the most revealing, since three of them duplicate settings that Britten employed in the War Requiem. The setting of the myth of Abraham and Isaac is more melodramatic than Britten’s, although the treatment of the final lines “and half the seed of Europe, one by one” is more withdrawn, leading into the chugging mechanical piano line that launches “Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to death” which completely avoids the devil-may-care of Britten’s treatment of the same text; the whistling of the soldiers while Death “shaved us with his scythe” has a desperation in the strident piano challenge. The final bars rattle out in Morse code on the piano “Wilfred Owen was killed Nov 4 1918”. But in the final song, Futility, Lindroth really does challenge Britten, the line “Move him into the sun” bringing a sense of lyrical consolation which is beautifully floated by Eleby. The final line couplet “O what made fatuous sunbeams toil to break earth’s sleep at all?” does not have Britten’s impassioned sense of questioning (with its telling repetition of the word “fatuous”) or its resolution into the choral line “Pie Jesu Domine” – but its lapse into an unresolved silence is equally telling in its own manner.

According to his website, Peter Lindroth has written a wide range of compositions, but these Wilfred Owen settings appear to be his only work for voice and piano. There is a CD recording of a “chamber opera” From the unchanging pier scored for bass and chamber ensemble, also sung by Eleby; this was issued in 2006, and given the usual history of the availability of such recordings it astoundingly appears to be still available. However I have to admit that the online synopsis of the action does not appear to be precisely appealing, the extracts that I have sampled include a fair sprinkling of spoken dialogue, and the idiom is much more “experimental” than these Owen settings. Nonetheless those interested in settings of English poetry will find this CD both enlightening and rewarding.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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