British Music Society Newsletter

Donald Swann is best known as half of Flanders and Swann – a humorist singing (and speaking) partnership which continued until 1967. Before that many of their songs (celebrated in their review At The Drop of a Hat) became part of the British popular psyche of the 1950s and 1960s. Mud Mud Glorious Mud is the best known of their songs They are still regarded with great affection.

Donald Swann was on this evidence clearly a most accomplished and sensitive composer His music is unfailingly lyrical although his word-settings often seem disarmingly disconnected from the curve and fall of the words. This is part of his engaging magic which knows nothing of bombast or grandiloquence.

The disc (gratifyingly filled to overflowing) contains new recordings (circa 63 minutes) and a home tape recording of Swann accompanying himself at the piano in The Casos Sonnets (eight songs to words by Swann) The latter, which plays for 14:47, has been cleaned of hiss but there is a trace overload of the piano sound and the occasional waver or wobble.

This disc is essentially The Isles of Greece cycle (folksily orchestrated with a light hand by the conductor) with individual songs sung by one (occasionally more) of the three listed singers. The cycle comprises The Casos Sonnets (seven of the eight) interspersed with Swann’s arrangements of Greek folk songs (the latter sung in Greek).

Nothing jars and Jansson’s orchestrations contribute to a literature that spans the light/serious ‘divide’ in common with works such as Canteloube’s Chants d’Auvergne, Berio’s Folksongs, Marek’s song cycles and Sean Davey’s Granuaile cycle.

Swann served in the Dodecanese isle of Casos from 1944-46 as a young relief worker with the Friends Ambulance Unit. While there he wrote down many of the folk songs he heard from the refugees in his care. The folk-songs dance, chime and serenade. The Favours makes a fine, slightly arch, novelty duet about a girl and her aspirant suitor. The songs breathe the air of the Mediterranean and some hint at further east e.g. in the sweet and pungent perfumes of Anatolia. The Women of Souli floats and dances in a heat-shimmer long baked into the glaring landscape. Militsa has a threatening railway beat like a superheated headache. Idle Tears glints and shivers with the harp and chants lovingly around David Roach’s saxophone. The title song Isles of Greece ticks and spins with impressionistic ‘vitality – a spidery web of magical clockwork

The singers seem excellent throughout and there is nothing of the suffocating operatic ambience. The orchestra (a string quartet, flute/piccolo, oboe/sax, clarinet, bassoon, two horns, percussion, piano, harp and bass) is used with great delicacy. This music has a nostalgic fragility which might otherwise be stifled.

It was an inspired decision to include Swann’s home-spun tape recording which is never less than poetic. Swann’s breathless sprechgesang and high notes that aspire (but don’t actually achieve) are trademarks of an eccentric but touchingly loveable English creator.

The words of the folk songs, though sung in Greek, are given only in translation in the booklet which is a pity. The booklet is otherwise excellent although it does not give the composer’s dates of birth and death. If you would like to sample a single track then go straight to the joyous dance that is The Isles of Greece (track 20). This is a very fine disc and well worth seeking out.

—Rob Barnett