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ENGLISH ORCHESTRAL SONGS: PARRY, STANFORD, FINZI, GURNEY Christopher Maltman (bar); BBC Scottish SO/Martyn Brabbins Hyperion CDA 67065 [72:09 ]




Christopher Maltman's pioneering programme of largely unfamiliar music for baritone and orchestra is remarkable, and we need to summarise the contents to appreciate the range of the programme. It consists of four orchestral songs by Stanford mostly totally unknown, including songs such as Prince Madoc's Farewell, Chieftain of Tyrconnell and Two Songs of Faith (from Op 97), plus the familiar song The Fairy Lough, usually heard with piano, once a Kathleen Ferrier lollipop. By Parry there is The North Wind and the ten-minute scena The Soldier's Tent, both also pretty well unknown. Then there is Finzi's orchestration of Gurney's Four Elizabethan Songs, and Finzi's own Shakepearian settings Let Us Garlands Bring. Finally two stunning Howells orchestrations of songs written in the trenches by his friend Ivor Gurney: In Flanders and By a Bierside.

On the face of it we should be celebrating this recording for the Stanford and Parry songs, and more about them below, but the Gurney/Howells songs are surely the plums here, a wonderful discovery, both of which find Maltman in ringing voice. With their evocative horn tone and touching string solos, Howells puts more fervour into these songs than Gurney, and Maltman responds with a perfect combination of restraint and all-out passion. The final climax of By a Bierside, with Maltman's magnificently sustained 'To die', is quite literally, hair raising, and in 1917 at the first performance must have been almost unbearable for many of those present including Howells and his master, Stanford, who conducted.

Mixed programmes devoted to British orchestral songs are few and far between, the only significant predecessor I can recall being Chandos's splendid survey of Quilter, Butterworth, Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Ireland which Stephen Varcoe recorded in 1989 (CHAN 8743). That programme also included Finzi's familiar cycle of Shakespearean settings Let Us Garlands Bring, the only duplication with Christopher Maltman's repertoire. I have compared the two and I must say I prefer Varcoe, partly for his slightly brighter voice but particularly for his more robust tempi. My stop-watch comparison (Varcoe second, in brackets) probably says it all:

1 'Come Away Death 3'33" (2'52")

2 'Who is Sylvia' 1'40" (1'21")

3 'Fear No More the Heat' 6'21" (4'14")

4 'O Mistress Mine' 1'57" (1'40")

5 'It was a Lover' 2'42" (2'25")

'Come Away Death' sets the approach for the whole sequence, but it is in 3 (not surprisingly) and 5, particularly, that Maltman sounds heavy and dragging in comparison to Varcoe. Yet in the context of his programme Maltman is persuasive and his 'Who is Sylvia' is engagingly turned.

The Stanford sequence includes the Two Songs of Faith, both totally new to me, setting words by Walt Whitman. As Jeremy Dibble explains in his superb and extended booklet notes (Hyperion exemplary, as usual, in the thoroughness of its documentation), Stanford first wrote his six Songs of Faith, Op 97, three each from Tennyson and Whitman, in 1906. The two that were orchestrated for the Norfolk, Connecticut, Music Festival in 1915, were those familiar Whitman words 'Darest Thou Now O Soul' also used by Vaughan Williams at much the same time, and 'Tears' also many times set by other composers. Dibble characterises Stanford's setting of 'Darest Thou Now O Soul' as a 'mystical drama of flexible melody and theatrical gestures' and in its orchestral dress it is vivid and exhilarating in its impact. Given a new stature, too, is the setting of 'The Faery Lough' from An Irish Idyll, always one of Stanford's most delightful and atmospheric songs. Indeed, all Stanford's songs which were orchestrated by the composer I find are to be preferred in their orchestral dress; I remember many years ago now at a Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra anniversary concert, Owen Brannigan sang the orchestral version of the cycle Cushendall, and despite the one or two rather twee numbers, it was particularly engaging in its orchestral setting.

With the editor's encouragement, I cannot resist suggesting repertoire for a second Hyperion CD, for there is plenty of rewarding and neglected material. Songs or scenas for solo voice and orchestra are not a medium composers tend to look at today, but there is some fine repertoire, as was made clear at last year's Three Choirs concert at St Matthew's Church, Cheltenham, from which Michael Hurd's cycle Shore Leave was such a discovery (19 August, see News No 80 pp 251-2). Of course, in days gone by this was the perfect format for 78s, and many songs with orchestral accompaniment by composers such as Eric Coates, Montague Phillips and Haydn Wood were popular favourites, but they have not all been revisited on CD.

A typical example would be Landon Ronald's extended scena The Lament of Shah Jehan, once recorded by Peter Dawson with orchestra (on HMV B 1723, is was reissued on LP by Pearl (GEM 144); there was also an acoustic 78 recording by Stewart Gardiner on 2480). Mention of Landon Ronald reminds me of a vocal score I have wondered about for many years, his extended setting of Adonais, Keats' celebrated elegy for Shelley.

This repertoire falls into three categories, first extended works for solo voice in a single span - a particularly persuasive example was Norman O'Neill's scena for baritone and orchestra setting La Belle Dame Sans Merci, sung at a Royal Academy of Music anniversary concert in May 1984. Conducted expansively by the late Maurice Handford, who gave it an engaging sweep and atmosphere it was a substantial sing at 10'34". Somewhat shorter, though no less affecting among the many works of Julius Harrison worth revisiting is the song or aria 'Rhapsody' a setting for baritone and orchestra of Whitman's 'On the Beach at Night Alone'.

ASV's recent recording of British light music (CD WHL 2113), exploring a range of pioneering repertoire, has brought us rewarding first recordings of music by Sir Malcolm Sargent, Clifton Parker, and a piece many have long waited for, Maurice Johnstone's delightful Path Across the Moors. All who relish the colour and atmosphere of that revival, will warm to Johnstone's dramatic wartime setting for baritone and orchestra of Matthew Arnold's Dover Beach, which instantly appealed to me when I heard it broadcast by the baritone Frederick Harvey in June 1958, while I was still at school. It gives away nothing to Samuel Barber's more familiar setting, and is still a favourite over forty years on (10'48").

Our second group includes many orchestral song cycles, today, of course, dominated by Britten's songs. It is surprising that given the popularity of the Britten his friend and contemporary Lennox Berkeley's lovely 4 Poems of St Theresa of Avila are not heard more often. They are for a woman's voice as are earlier examples as familiar as Elgar's Sea Pictures. It is good to know that the BBC have Thomas Dunhill's cycle of four Yeatsian baritone songs The Wind Among the Reeds in the can with the Ulster Orchestra. One or two of the individual songs are comparatively well known, sung by both men and women, but the orchestral version has not be heard since the war.

There are many good orchestral songs by Bantock, too, and well worth investigating after the success of the Sappho Songs. Probably the three cycles most worthy of attention are the large scale Five Gazals of Hafiz, once sung by Harold Williams, the Three Celtic Songs and the strange but powerful Four Pagan Chants. All are on the most expansive scale.

In the case of Parry and Stanford we should not forget the arias from the oratorios and operas. In the case of Parry, the Handelian aria 'God Breaketh the Battle', from Judith, has long been one of my favourite 78s, though recorded as long ago as 1921. It would be good to hear it sung again. Meantime, do investigate Christopher Maltman's splendid programme - a fine achievement.


Lewis Foreman

(as usual with Hyperion there are 22 pages of texts and detailed notes by Jeremy Dibble - LM)

and another view from Gerald Fenech

Hyperion already provide a sure firewinner with the cover on this CD. A typically pastoral scene of magnificent beauty is just the right tonic to this well-filled disc of English orchestral songs, all rarities in their own field. I was taken by Parry after being exposed to Mathias Bamert's landmark recordings on Chandos in the early 90's and can confirm that his settings of 'The North Wind' and 'The Soldier's Tent' are profuse with lyrical beauty, especially as sung by the commendable Christopher Maltman. Sir Charles Stanford was another prolific song composer and he is extremely well represented on this CD.

Of the four items carried here, I would single out the 'Two Songs of Faith' for prophetic utterance and quite inspired melodic harmony. The orchestral accompaniment is beautifully vivid and Brabbins is quite obviously fully attuned with this highly charged outpouring of words and music. 'The Fairy Lough' and 'Prince Madoc's Farewell' reveal the composer's penchant for lyrical and adventurous legends set to rather conventional orchestration.

A tragedy of humanism, Ivor Gurney's life was one bitter poem of sorrow but his orchestral songs are masterpieces that rank amongst the finest elements of their genre. The 'Four Elizabethan Songs' are wonderfully evocative, here the deep lyrical passion of the composer's music matches perfectly with the ravishing texts. The same could be said of 'In Flanders', a graphic representation of one of Britain's worst sacrifices in the First World War.

The disc concludes with Gerald Finzi's mammoth setting of 'Let us garlands bring', an almost symphonic conception of great pastoral beauty, it is indeed a fitting epilogue to a wonderful project. Hyperion secure some amazingly vivid sound with an almost perfect balance between soloist and orchestra. An outstanding release, full of the usual Hyperion enterprise and a true gem of the repertoire.


Gerald Fenech


Lewis Foreman


Gerald Fenech

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