What a difficult CD to review! The material is extremely interesting, the performances are lively and musical, and pianist Nigel Foster is superb. Unfortunately the tenor, Paul Martyn-West, doesn’t have much of a voice. It is thin, wobbly, and nasal, with extremely poor breath support, although he does have exemplary diction and his interpretations are quite good.
The lightest material on the disc, of course, is Peter Warlock’s Candlelights cycle, but being Warlock, the harmonic construction is extremely interesting and original. The two short cycles by Warlock’s friend and drinking buddy (I accidentally typed in “drunking buddy”—a Freudian slip, no doubt!) Ernest John Moeran is equally interesting and more lyrical. His settings of the seven Joyce poems are excellent. Since Joyce was himself an excellent light tenor, I wonder if he attempted singing them in private himself.
I can find none of the Moeran songs available elsewhere on disc. Warlock’s “Take, O Take Those Lips Away” from the three 1916–17 songs is also available by John Mark Ainsley, Timothy Travers-Brown, and Parry Jones, the latter in the superb two-CD set of historic Warlock recordings also issued by Divine Art (27811). The Fox also appears in the Divine Art set, sung by Dennis Noble, and there are other versions by Ainsley and baritone Norman Bailey. All but Bailey’s version of The Fox are superior to Martyn-West’s performances, but that’s about it for availability. Nothing at all seems to be available elsewhere of Geoffrey Stern’s music. A member of the Peter Warlock Society as well as a personal friend of Martyn-West, Stern contributed money toward the production of this CD. It was recorded on October 24–26, 2005; on October 3, Martyn-West called him on the phone to invite him to one of the final rehearsals before recording, but Stern died later than same day. His music is similarly lyrical and atmospheric, providing excellent options for a song recitalist looking for interesting English material.
Thus we have that exasperating combination of excellent music sung with affection, musicality, and a connection to text by a singer without much of a voice. To be fair, when Peter Pears hit his vocal crisis in the 1950s, he sounded even worse than this, but that seems to me damning with faint praise. Therefore I recommend this disc for the music and the interpretations but not necessarily for the singing.
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