This release represents a labour of love. The accompanying booklet is a mine of information with nine pages devoted to the composer and his music. Annotator Giles Davies often gives perceptive critical comments on the performances – honest even to the extent of including certain reservations about specific items but since some works are presented in more than one version, such comparison is useful and I tend to agree with his assessments. Four further pages contain details of the source material and are described by Stephen Sutton (proprietor of Divine Art).
The edition begins with what is probably Peter Warlock’s best-known work, the Capriol Suite. There are three recordings here. This first is by Anthony Bernard and the London Chamber Orchestra made in 1931. I agree with Davies’s preference for Constant Lambert’s 1937 version, placed four tracks later. Although he takes only slightly longer, Lambert is far more relaxed and his phrasing has as spacious air about it. Nevertheless, it is good to have Bernard represented and the sound is very acceptable. The essence of Lambert’s interpretation lies in the ‘Pavane’ – this is beautiful music and it is performed with great tenderness. I once attended a funeral where the organist was asked to perform this piece – I found him transcribing at sight from the orchestral score – it makes a superb organ voluntary. How strange then that in the Serenade for Strings, recorded on the same day, Lambert’s Orchestra sounds plain and rather loud. The comparative version by John Barbirolli is nine years older and shows its age, yet the conductor is far more subtle. This Serenade is not particularly melodic and tends to throw fragments of tunes in a continuous line – very much in the English style of the time – Delius sometimes did this and later Tippett refined this method in a personal and very different way.
Among the instrumental pieces on the first disc is yet another Capriol Suite. This is a real curiosity – a version for violin and piano of three of the six movements arranged and played by Josef Szigeti. Good for Warlock completists and intriguing because it seems to have caught Szigeti on an off day – he starts under pitch (I don’t think the original 78 is to blame) and his violin sound is over-forward and a bit rough. Nikita Magaloff is very much in the background.
It is always good to hear the Griller Quartet and its recording of Purcell’s four-part Fantasia from the days of Decca’s ffrr system is probably the most realistic in sonic terms of the whole compilation.
Warlock’s remarkable song-cycle “The Curlew” is presented in the clearly recorded HMV version of 1950 featuring the tenor René Soames with Léon Goossens and the Aeolian String Quartet. The sensitivity of Goossens is no less effective in creating the extraordinary atmosphere of this piece than the firm, dramatic voice of Soames. It is unfortunate that the general perceived nature of this work is one of darkness and depression – true this reflected the composer’s state of mind at the time, but it would be sad indeed if it dissuaded potential listeners from experiencing the amazing beauty of these settings of four poems by W. B. Yeats. The booklet note explains that this rare recording “known only to devoted Warlockians” was favoured for use in the present album since the historic 1931 version sung by John Armstrong and directed by Constant Lambert is already available on compact disc. As this is perhaps Warlock’s most famous work, it is good that such justice has been done. Soames’s phrasing is exquisite and he brings off the demanding unaccompanied section in the final song superbly.
The second disc is entirely vocal and contains mostly songs sung by famous names of the first half of the twentieth-century. One choral piece with contralto and tenor soloists appears three times, however: “Corpus Christi”, recorded by The English singers (1927); BBC Chorus/Ann Wood/Peter Pears/Leslie Woodgate (1936); Festival Singers/Flora Nielsen/René Soames/Leslie Woodgate (1950). There is extraordinary contrast here. The unnamed soloists in the 1927 version are excellent and their diction is very clear although the choir’s intonation leaves something to be desired. This takes three minutes. In 1936 a less interesting performance takes four minutes and there is enthusiasm for Pears’s contribution. It is sung well enough – but I find the most interesting aspect to be the opportunity of hearing this well-known voice displaying a very youthful timbre. In 1950 the same conductor takes nearly five minutes. Soames, three days after recording “The Curlew”, is superb. This is the most convincing interpretation of the three, yet it must be said that the words can be heard clearest of all in the 1927 version.
The songs are grouped by soloist and it is fascinating when pieces are duplicated and styles can be closely compared. “Captain Stratton’s Fancy” is a splendid example with Peter Dawson, Roy Henderson and Oscar Natzke taking contrasting views. Dawson’s comforting full tone is ideal; Henderson is lighter in touch with more emphasis and fashioning of words to delightful effect while Natzke provides the only version with orchestral accompaniment and he seems to sound the most ‘English’ of the three. His phrasing is often extravagant but always convincing – the recording also projects his voice very firmly.
Each singer has a characteristic style and I doubt any vocalist today would attempt to adopt their entirely suitable, very English approach so typical of the early 20th-century. John Armstrong sings two songs: “Sleep” and “Chop Cherry” but it is interesting to note that these were recorded in 1931 with the International String Quartet – therefore presumably at the same time as he partnered them at the ‘Curlew’ sessions. I don’t entirely understand why he is described as a baritone for these songs yet he sang as tenor for “The Curlew”. Armstrong seems to employ a touch more vibrato than most singers – but this is, in general, used very sparingly by everyone represented here and it is to be commended since it is known that Warlock did not care for that technique.
It is not really possible clearly to describe the differences in timbre of the various singers – Parry Jones has a hint of the young Pears in his voice and he also tends to be dramatic in expression (there is a hint of agony in his version of “Sleep” where Armstrong is more comforting). Roy Henderson has a very recognisable tone and he always renders the music with firm phrasing that seems to speak of an Englishman of the period, confident of all that he is expressing in song. Dennis Noble in his more recent (1951) recordings has a gentle, calm style – he is given only thoughtful pieces to sing, but he does not overstress the dramatic moments in “The Fox”. John Goss – a good friend of Warlock – is perhaps the most forgotten of the experts in English song and he sings ‘authentic’ arrangements of four Elizabethan texts. These were arranged for piano by Warlock but here Goss is accompanied by Diana Poulton’s lute. Goss also contributes a jolly drinking song, “Oh Good Ale” accompanied by a male-voice quartet.
The transfers from 78 are exemplary – just a touch of residuary background noise is audible – greater in older recordings of course – but this is a good sign since it is obvious that over-correction has been avoided and final fades are neatly achieved. Inevitably there are moments of distortion on some of the older 78s that could not be cured and sometimes the sound is very dry; I would not have objected to electronic ‘warming’ but I know that there is a purist school of thought that thinks this technique unacceptable.
Somehow the use of period recordings brings us nearer to the strange world of Philip Heseltine, always known as Peter Warlock. He was sometimes depressed but was apparently great company and had varied interests. It is well-known that the occult fascinated him and this is presumed to have been a factor in his use of the pseudonym by which he is remembered. He had an outgoing side to him also and it is worth remembering that he edited an anthology on drinking called “Merry-go Down” subtitled, ‘for the delectation of serious topers’. Once again he chose to use a pseudonym, this time ‘Rab Noolas’ (one does not need to be skilful at anagrams to solve that one!).
In all this is a fitting memorial to Peter Warlock. These transfers have obviously been made with exceptional care and this is an important historic release.