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Sir Hamilton HARTY (1879-1941) Songs
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
rec. 2018/19, Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton; St John’s, Upper Norwood, London
Texts included SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0616 [71:25]
What a musical polymath Sir Hamilton Harty was! Indeed, Jeremy Dibble’s major biography of Harty uses that very term in its title (review). He was a conductor of some distinction, serving as Chief Conductor of the Hallé Orchestra (1920-1933) and, for a brief spell, occupying the same role with the LSO (1932-34). As a conductor he was noted, among other things, as an early British champion of Berlioz, and Jonathan Woolf’s review of some Berlioz recordings attests to Harty’s podium pedigree. He was also a prodigious pianist, greatly in demand as a recital partner. If that were not enough, he also composed a good deal of music. I’ve heard and enjoyed some of his orchestral music, thanks to the excellent series of discs that Bryden Thomson made for Chandos; they were later reissued as a boxed set (review). However, until this disc arrived for review, I knew nothing of his songs. Perhaps that’s not so surprising; no fewer than 17 pieces on this disc – all but the first 8 tracks - are receiving their recorded premieres thanks to Kathryn Rudge and Christopher Glynn.
Harty was an Irishman, born in County Down in what is now Northern Ireland. Early on, he earned a living as a church organist, mainly in and around Dublin, before moving to London in 1901. Making that move must have been a huge gamble because it was a real venture into the unknown, but his pianism soon won him a reputation. A good number of the songs he wrote were composed with one or other of two of his regular recital partners in mind. One was the soprano, Agnes Nicholls who he first met in 1902; they were married in 1904. The other was the mezzo, Elsie Swinton, with whom he worked principally from 1910 until she retired from singing in 1913; Jeremy Dibble, the author of the notes for this recording, says that there may well have been a romantic entanglement between Elsie Swinton and Harty. Harty’s Irish roots are a clear source of inspiration in his songs; at least 11 of the present collection are by Irish poets – and that’s not counting two for which Harty himself furnished the words.
I’d say there are three defining features to these songs. One is a fine melodic inspiration; every one of the songs has a grateful vocal line, written by someone with an intuitive grasp of what works well for the human voice. Another is the harmonic invention; there are countless examples of interesting modulations during stanzas. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the piano parts are constantly enriching. Remember, Harty himself would have played most, if not all, of these songs and the piano parts were clearly conceived for a highly accomplished pianist. Christopher Glynn is kept on his toes throughout this recital and there is never a suggestion that the pianist is “merely” the accompanist; these compositions require a genuine partnership. Yet so skilled is Harty – and Glynn, for that matter – that even though the piano parts are crucially important they never overwhelm the singer’s line.
I enjoyed all these songs, and the performances of them; let me pick out a few highlights to tempt you. The very first song offers a taste of what is to follow. Sea Wrack has an attractive, folk-like melody. Underneath the vocal line is a very interesting piano part which really adds to the story-telling. This item also gives us a very good foretaste of the performance standards. Kathryn Rudge sings with warm, appealing tone and her diction is very good. Meanwhile, at the piano Christopher Glynn offers delightful, colourful playing. My Lagan Love, an Irish song, is an intriguing proposition. The vocal part is very free, almost improvisatory; in fact, we learn from the notes that Harty marked the music quasi senza tempo. Ms Rudge’s singing is compelling and the piano part is highly evocative. A Cradle Song was written for Elsie Swinton. The music modulates effortlessly into various keys,
which adds considerable interest to a song which is otherwise fairly simple in design. The result is most appealing. The Song of Glen Dun was composed for Harty’s other singer muse, Agnes Nicholls; indeed, it was the first song that he wrote for her. I wouldn’t describe the poem which Harty set, by Moira O’Neill, as great poetry but he made it into a good song.
To the Gods of Harbour and Headland is an ambitious song. In his notes Jeremy Dibble draws a parallel with the songs of Richard Strauss and I don’t think that’s at all far-fetched. The music challenges both singer and pianist and it is, in fact, a rather sumptuous song. Kathryn Rudge sings it very well, though on occasion when she is required to sing loudly at the top of her vocal compass, I detected just a touch of hardness of tone. That’s a trait that I thought was also in evidence on one or two other occasions in the programme. This particular song was written for Agnes Nicholls, a soprano, whereas Ms Rudge is a mezzo; so, if she is singing in the original key it would be understandable if the range is challenging at times.
By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame is a setting of words by Walt Whitman; Harty was a great devotee of the American’s poetry, apparently. This is a good song, though I have to say that on this evidence Harty was not in Vaughan Williams’ league when it came to setting Whitman. Dreaming is a most interesting song. From its title you might expect a gentle reverie but Harty’s song, which sets lines by Cahir Healy, is very far from that. The music for each stanza starts simply enough, but each time the music becomes much more eloquent. The piano part grows in complexity while the harmonies and the key changes make the music more and more expressive. In Jeremy Dibble’s words, Healy’s poem “darkly recounts the calamity of lost love and longing for death”. Harty’s music really does it justice. Finer still, though, is The Stranger’s Grave. The singer has an intense lament to deliver while the important piano part is demanding of the pianist. Ms Rudge sings this very fine song with great expression. I think it’s the deepest composition on the disc. In complete contrast Lane o’ the Thrushes is a real charmer. Here the piano often mimics birdsong in the right hand.
Apparently, Harty ceased composing songs once war had broken out in 1914 and he only picked up the thread again in 1920, which is when he composed My Thoughts of You. Jeremy Dibble believes that Harty may have written the words himself and that the pervading melancholy reflects the unhappy state of his marriage to Agnes Nicholls. The wistful sadness of the words and vocal line is not dispelled by the fluent piano arabesques. Harty was also the author of the words of Adieu, Sweet Amaryllis, although in a gentle deception he sought to attribute the music to John Dowland and claimed that he (Harty) had transcribed the words from an old manuscript. We can, I think, forgive him this deception because the result is a pleasing pastiche of Dowland which forms a lovely conclusion to the recital.
As well as the songs, Christopher Glynn plays two short piano works by Harty, neither of which were published. He wrote both of them in 1904, quite possibly to play them himself as interludes in vocal recitals. Arlequin and Columbine represents the commedia dell’arte characters. The outer sections (Arlequin) are deft and agile, while the central section (Columbine) is a suave waltz. It’s a very pleasing interlude, as is the charming Idyll. Christopher Glynn gives delightful performances of both pieces.
This is a highly enjoyable recital. Hamilton Harty’s songs deserve to be much better known and if a primary function of a recording is to make people aware of unfamiliar music then this CD most certainly does its job. The music could scarcely wish for better advocacy. Kathryn Rudge’s singing and Christopher Glynn’s pianism give consistent pleasure and it seems to me that they respond to the mood of each individual piece with sensitivity and understanding.
The recorded sound is excellent. The songs were recorded by engineer Paul Arden-Taylor who has balanced singer and piano in an ideal fashion. The two piano pieces were recorded separately by Ben Connellan, and though one can detect a different acoustic the sound is just as pleasing. As Harty’s biographer, Jeremy Dibble is uniquely qualified to write the notes and his essay is informative as well as being perceptive about the music itself. It’s something of an irritant, though, that he discusses the songs in a completely different order to that in which they are presented on the disc.
Hamilton Harty’s songs have been very well served on this disc. I believe there are quite a few more songs; might Somm give us a follow-up album?
Sea Wrack [3:34]
Scythe Song [2:00]
My Lagan Love [3:47]
The Blue Hills of Antrim [4:45]
Arlequin and Columbine (piano solo) [4:45]
A Cradle Song [2:20]
The Song of Glen Dun [3:13]
By the Sea [1:58]
The Fiddler of Dooney [1:58]
To the Gods of Harbour and Headland [2:23]
The Lowlands of Holland [2:10]
By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame [2:59]
The Stranger’s Grave [4:26]
Idyll (piano solo) [3:51]
Flame in the Skies of Sunset [2:14]
Lane o’ the Thrushes [2:04]
A Lullaby [2:45]
My Thoughts of You [2:40]
Your Hand in Mine, Beloved [1:57]
At Easter [2:51]
Come, O Come, My Life’s Delight [2:14]
Adieu, Sweet Amaryllis [4:08]