The English Poetry and Song Society has, since its founding in 1983, promoted English art song with competitions and concerts in London and various cities around the southwest of England. Presidents of the society have been recitalists of note, including John Carol Case (the first), Ian Partridge, Meriel Dickinson, Jane Manning, Stephen Roberts, Sarah Leonard, and Stephen Varcoe. The composition competitions offer performances for the finalist songs in subsequent concerts, some of which have been recorded live, on portable equipment under less than ideal conditions. Four made it to disc on the Dunelm label. They were intended primarily for the society and were hard to find outside the UK. In fact, information regarding the society and the competition proves difficult to locate, as well, with the internet offering only the one page maintained by composer Richard Carder, the society’s long-standing chairman. Yet these recordings, acquired by Divine Art when it took over Dunelm’s catalog, have had something of a cult following. So, “by demand” they have recently been reissued on disc and are now being distributed in the U.S. by Naxos of America.

So, what has the fuss been about? It’s not sound. The recordings are listenable but not, as Divine Art warns, “to our usual modern standard.” Balance issues—between vocalists in the four SATB quartets of Lights Out, and between soloist and piano in general—are the most common concern, and there are audience noises in a couple of releases. Four tracks of The Great War Remembered, recorded in 1993 on a cassette tape, are distant and lack focus, and the 2004 recital tracks are a little distant, too.

Nor are these discs likely to attract attention because of the performances. There is some impressive singing, notably Ian Partridge’s searching readings of four Ivor Gurney songs at the 2003 London concert archived on Lights Out. At almost 65, he gives a masterclass in the art of singing, establishing a standard none of the other singers match. All are at least capable, however. Two of the quartet of singers engaged for Lights Out, tenor Paul Martyn-West and mezzo-soprano Clare Griffel, are better than that, especially in word-pointing. The other two have some technical faults or a less nuanced delivery than is ideal. More impressive is baritone Jeremy Huw Williams, the soloist on The Great War Remembered.
His sharp interpretive intelligence makes his recital quite satisfying overall, and his flexible and pleasant voice is in better estate than in more recent recordings.

Baritone Stephen Foulkes is best in the 2002 Songs of Dorset: not a model of text-shading or subtle shaping of line, perhaps, but good, sturdy recital singing with character. In the 2006 Shropshire Lads recital he is somewhat less dependable, with looser vibrato, some straining after high notes, and an occasional choking quality in the voice in softer singing. Whether this is indisposition or the passage of time is impossible to tell, but even here, his enthusiasm and essential musicality carry the day.

But, ultimately the repertoire will determine interest. The songs of the competition winners are sole recordings in most cases, as are some of the works by well-known composers. A good number of the new are worthy of the company they keep: Moeran, Somervell, Finzi, Gurney, Ireland, Vaughan Williams. Some songs are by known professionals, others by musicians about whom I can find no information. There are a couple, including a first-place winner, by former LSO oboist Roger Lord. The songs in The Great War Remembered—harrowing, ironic, and even darkly humorous—are among the most compelling of the series. That includes the songs of the seven 2004 finalists, which are uniformly imaginative and engaging, making this disc a good starting point. There are some impressive songs and a piano solo by Sulyen Caradon—pseudonym of Richard Carder, the EPSS chair—in Lights Out, in addition to some excellent classic works, but the remaining new works, from unspecified competitions, are among the weakest of the series. The other two releases are consistently strong.

Texts and artist bios are included, though they are not updated from the original release. There are notes on the major composers and songs, but not the competition winners. If you have been waiting for this series to appear on disc, as I have, here is your chance. Those who have not yet caught the English art song bug may wish to explore elsewhere. But come back here for the rarities.

—Ronald E. Grames