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Isolation Songbook
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Craddock (baritone)
Alexander Soares (piano)
rec. September 2020, The Queens Hall, Edinburgh.
Texts included
DELPHIAN DCD34253 [65:04]

I think I should start this review with an admission. A good deal of the music on this CD has challenged me somewhat; consequently, it’s taken me longer than I would have expected to assimilate the contents of the disc and, therefore, to prepare this review. However, the background to this project is such that I felt I needed to persevere.

A brief explanation of the background is in order; indeed, it’s vital if the project is to be understood. The two singers featured on this disc, Helen Charlston and Michael Craddock, were due to marry on 18 April 2020 but, of course, the UK’s pandemic lockdown intervened. Instead, Helen Charlston wrote a poem for her fiancÚ; they then asked their friend Owain Park to set it to music. I’ve read an interview with the two singers on the Presto Classical website in which they explain that the project evolved as they invited more composers to write songs for them which they could learn and sing at home during the long months when there was no prospect of returning to live performance. I only found that interview after I’d completed my listening and one surprising discovery was that they’d asked for pieces with piano parts that they could play themselves while singing the songs. I wouldn’t say that any of the piano writing that we hear is virtuosic in the conventional sense, but often the piano parts are challenging when one takes into account the rhythms and intervals and then tries to imagine singing one of the demanding vocal lines at the same time!

It’s inevitable, I suppose, that new songs written during a time of pandemic with all the manifold concerns arising from Covid, would often tend to be introspective in nature. That’s the case with a good number of these songs though, as we shall see, some of the composers have been able to take a lighter approach. That’s a welcome leavening. Some of the compositions don’t speak to me, I’m afraid; in some cases, that’s because the music is jagged in nature, something which, with certain exceptions, usually seems to me to be the antithesis of music that’s intended to be sung. In one or two cases, I haven’t yet been able to ‘get’ either the words or the music – or both. Such an example is Heloise Werner’s The Orange Vendor; maybe I’ll understand it eventually.

Those reservations aside, there’s much to admire here. It’s right to consider first Owain Park’s 18th April, since that kicked off the whole project. Park’s music seems to me to fit extraordinarily well the sentiments expressed in Helen Charlston’s poem. Thus, the song moves from regret until it reaches the ‘quiet communion’ of the couple. I like the way the piano part initially includes a suggestion of wedding bells; the bells return at the song’s end.

Andrew Brixey-Williams’ Abat-jour is a solo for Helen Charlston. He sets an English translation of a poem by the Frenchman, Pierre Reverdy (1889-1960). Apparently, this poet, who was also a Resistance fighter and a friend of Coco Chanel, lived the last 34 years of his life in near seclusion with his wife. Brixey-Williams’ music conveys strikingly the poem’s mood of intimate isolation. Helen Charlston and Alexander Soares distil a very strong atmosphere.

It has been remarked by many commentators that during the months when lockdown restricted the activities of UK citizens – and the people of other countries too – many of us reconnected with nature during walks for exercise, or even in our own gardens, if we were lucky enough to have such a thing. This ‘Back-to-Nature’ phenomenon is picked up in a few of these songs. Richard Barnard’s Three Early Stroll Songs ingeniously sets three tweets posted by the Yorkshire poet Ian McMillan (b 1956), written after early morning walks. Equally ingenious is Derri Joseph Lewis’s A moment, which the composer describes as a musical haiku. Nature plays its part in this poem too – the words are by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge - and Lewis’s music is both delicate and expressive. Joshua Borin’s Nature is Returning sets a poem by Sophie Rashbrook (b 1987) as a solo for Helen Charlston. It’s an unusual poem and Borin catches its essence very well, I think. Much of the poem seems like a lyrical recollection of aspects of the natural world. These episodes invite pleasing legato lines which Borin provides. But interspersed are contrasting passages in which, far from admiring nature, the poet is trying to slay an annoying moth – and eventually succeeds. Both the poem and the musical setting are very clever. In some ways, the most overt connection with nature comes in Elliott Park’s Skysong. The full work consists of six sections, only two of which are performed on this occasion; the composer leaves to the performers’ discretion how many sections to include and in what order. The music is accompanied by a pre-recorded tape of sounds which Park recorded in his garden during one 24-hour period.

I mentioned that there are lighter elements to this programme; these provide welcome contrast. In The King’s Breakfast, Ben Rowarth sets the well-known poem by A A Milne in a way that the notes describe as “less a song, more a mini-opera”. The setting is very amusing and the two singers enter right into the spirit, characterising the story extravagantly. Matthew J C Ward’s Concerning Cows: A Rural Song Cycle consists of three pithy songs, sung by Michael Craddock. The results, though very brief, are entertaining and the work raises an important musicological question: has a joke by Eddie Braben, scriptwriter to Morecambe and Wise, ever been set as an art song?!

I like very much the last two items on the programme. Dreams by James Davy is shared between the two singers. The opening, sung by Michael Craddock is gently nostalgic but its lyricism lulls the listener into a sense of false security. The middle section of the song, sung by Helen Charlston, is much fierier and more dramatic, before she brings the song full circle, returning to the calm lyricism of the opening to bring the song to a reassuring close. Finally, Helen Charlston sings On His Blindness by Stephen Bick. This is a setting of the poem by John Milton which ends with the famous line, ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’. In this poem Milton was contemplating his own failing eyesight and the increasing isolation that his blindness would bring. Bick’s song, is a very eloquent response to the text and I admire the way in which he incorporates into the music a feel of the music of Milton’s own time while keeping his composition very much in the twenty-first century.

There are some very interesting songs here and it’s fascinating to see how the 15 composers have responded to the perceived challenges – and opportunities in the case of our increased connection with nature – that lockdown brought. For instance, in Melancholy (and Buttermilk) Kerensa Briggs considered the challenge to personal relationships that might arise from living in close proximity to the same person without much respite and how this might impact even mundane domestic tasks. As such, this Isolation Songbook is, as annotator Erica Jeal puts it, “a vivid and varied souvenir” of the pandemic emergency.

I understand that the programme has been performed at least once in its complete form and there’s no doubt that it does provide a coherent whole. However, I gather Helen Charlston has performed a few of the songs separately in recital and that would seem to confirm that the songs can function equally well as independent compositions. Listeners, once familiar with the contents, may like to pick and choose.

The standard of performance is extremely high. These songs clearly mean a great deal to Helen Charlston and Michael Craddock – as one would expect, given the circumstances that led to the compositions – while Alexander Soares supports them expertly. The recorded sound is up to Delphian’s usual very high standards and Erica Jeal’s notes guide the listener expertly through the programme.

The lockdowns of 2020/21 have been very difficult for far too many people and performing musicians have had many trials and uncertainties to bear. It’s good, though, that those trying circumstances acted as a stimulus to the creation of these new songs.

John Quinn

Owain Park (b 1993) 18th April [4:32]
Heloise Werner (b 1991) The Orange Vendor [4:16]
Andrew Brixey-Williams (b 1956) Abat-jour [4:26]
Kerensa Briggs (b 1991) Melancholy (and Buttermilk) [6:23]
Nathan James Dearden (b 1992) the way we go [4:08]
Richard Barnard (b 1977) Three Early Stroll Songs [5:22]
Joshua Borin (b 1989) Nature is Returning [6:16]
Ben Rowarth (b 1992) The King’s Breakfast [3:03]
Elliott Park (b 1994) Skysong – extracts [8:03]
Derri Joseph Lewis (b 1997) A moment [2:15]
Terence Charlston (b 1962) Three duets for mezzo-soprano and baritone [4:22]
Matthew J C Ward (b 1987) Concerning Cows: A Rural Song Cycle [1:46]
Gerda Blok-Wilson (b 1955) I’m Nobody [2:29]
James Davy (b 1980) Dreams [4:01]
Stephen Bick (b 1993) On His Blindness [3:40]

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