Fanfare

There’s no missing the streak of English Pastoralism that runs through Betty Roe’s gentle song I Know a Bank for soprano, recorder, and piano, a setting of Oberon’s instructions to Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sarah Leonard is the superbly eloquent singer here, underpinned by Nigel Foster’s superbly modulated piano contribution, with his sensitivity being even more obvious in the song In a Garden. Born in 1930, Roe has composed over 300 vocal works and six operas. Her opera Canterbury Morning was a collaboration with Ursula Vaughan Williams, a connection brought about via the connection of Roe’s late husband and the Vaughan Williams Society. Roe studied with Lennox Berkeley and York Bowen.

Roe sets words beautifully naturally. There is something of Walton’s Façade to the quirky colorings to melodies in “The Critic,” the second of the Two Garden Songs, with Madeleine Mitchell’s violin providing a playful counterpoint, and voice and violin coming to an amusing unison on the word “weed.” The well-loved soprano Sarah Leonard sings beautifully, always impeccably in tune and with a most appealing tone.

For Roe’s brief setting of the Magnificat (a setting of text from St. Luke’s gospel), soprano Anne Marie Sheridan takes over. Sheridan has a light, mobile voice capable of delivering the long melismas on the word “Amen” perfectly.

Sadly, horn player Daniel Beer is omitted in error from the list of performers on the back cover—an especial pity, as the disc is named after the extended song that features him, The Silver Hound, to a text by Ursula Vaughan Williams. This is a superb performance; the piece has something of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings about it. Tenor Robin Tischler carries a real sense of narration throughout. The piece is divided into some eight sections (of which the first and last are Prologue and Epilogue). Written in 1990 and premiered in the beautiful setting of Leighton House in Kensington, it is composed with a deft way with the words and drama. The return to art song in The Fair Singer (to a text by Andrew Margall), although the performers remain constant, is marked.

Baritone Stephen Varcoe will need no introduction, and his version of the Three Songs for Graham is infinitely tender. Roe sets words by her collaborator in opera, Martin Lines. The central song, “The promising Gardener,” is particularly witty and appealing, and finds pianist Nigel Foster utilizing his most delicate touch. Incidentally, the word “Ceefax” refers to a television-based option to check out things like the weather or cricket scores before we had the World Wide Wait (or Web, if you prefer). I for one simply can’t imagine a finer interpreter than Varcoe for the oh-so-English “Scooting” final song; the swift reference to Orientalisms for the line “the Emperor of scooting” is deliciously woven in by Roe.

Talking of humor, and of musical references for that matter, Diva’s Lament, in annotator Iain Sneddon’s notes, bemoans “the lack of age-appropriate roles for mature sopranos.” It was composed in 1995, the 300th anniversary of Purcell’s death, hence the punning title and a quote from “Dido’s Lament.” Sarah Leonard is simply hilarious.

Another reference, surely, is found in the piano part that opens the first of the Hardy Conversations, this time to piano parts in Schubert Lieder. Roe sets Hardy for soprano (Sheridan) and baritone (Varcoe), the parts interacting with a very English sense of politeness. Intriguingly, the text Roe uses for The Life that I have, attributed to Leo Marks and used in a 1958 film, Carve her name with pride, is a “World War II code poem.” Roe adds recorder to the sound picture to wonderful effect at the close. The brief Autumn’s Legacy is a poignant setting of a Rückblick over one’s life by the poet Lewis Foreman (who commissioned Roe).

Finally, there comes the Three Celtic Songs for soprano (Sheridan), recorder, and piano. Sheridan is herself Irish, so there is a nice sense of homecoming here. The ending of “A Boy’s Song,” the second of the three songs, is so conclusive that “The Fiddler of Dooney” almost emerges as an epilogue.

This is absolutely one of those discs that I started off thinking it just was not going to be my thing (too much Vaughan Williams at a formative age is a dangerous thing, it would appear) and ended up absolutely captivated. A superb recording, with excellent placement of voices and instruments in the sound picture, seals the deal.

—Colin Clarke