Put simply, this is a treasure trove of archival material for any fans of the composer. With one disc largely devoted to instrumental works, and a second exclusively to songs, it draws heavily upon content from the collection of the Peter Warlock Society, bequeathed to it by the late John Bishop. The rare and the popular sit cheek by jowl; duplication, and sometimes triplication, would seem to be the order of the day, where reasonably possible. On the CD of songs, Captain Stratton’s Fancy is dished up in three versions; a firm-voiced, straight-ahead rendition by Peter Dawson (1927), an orchestral accompanied, delightfully over-the-top version by that dark bass Oscar Natzke (c. 1939), and an idiosyncratically sung but wonderfully vivid account by Kathleen Ferrier’s teacher, Roy Henderson (1943). At the other end of the emotional spectrum, there are three recordings of the eerie Corpus Christi . One from 1936 is chiefly notable for featuring a young Peter Pears as tenor soloist, while a 1950 version has the lyrical and intense René Soames. Both are relatively slow and focus on an almost classical balance of textures, but I find the best of the three to be the earliest, from 1927. All issues of sonic constriction to one side, it possesses an impetus, tension, and harmonic edginess that are missing from the later renditions.
The fine soloist in that version is John Goss, a good friend of Warlock’s both in and out of the pubs where the composer caroused in the last years of his relatively short life. Goss is heard in several songs of the collection, singing both in a reedy “average man” voice astonishingly good effect ( Oh Good Ale ), and in more appropriately “posh” professional tone, with lute accompaniment in four selection based on Elizabethan models. These latter from 1928 were rare experiments of their time, progenitors of modern albums by the likes of Marco Beasley and Charles Daniels. The action in Diana Poulton’s lute is caught more than the instrument itself, but Goss’s cantabile line and textual enunciation are the real thing (and he’s no slouch in the figurations, either). For the rest, there’s plenty of Henderson (insightfully Sir Andrew Aguecheek-foppish in Pieggesnie ), Parry Jones (his large voice did not record well at that time – but there’s an edgy version of The Fox), Dennis Noble, John Armstrong, and more: some of the finest British singers of their day, in interpretations of Warlock’s songs that often reveal striking differences from one another and from modern versions.
Over on the instrumental CD, Constant Lambert (1937) makes far more of the phrasing in the Capriol Suite than the blank-faced and hurried Anthony Bernard (1931), while an unusually harsh-sounding Joseph Szigeti along with his usual accompanist, Nikita Magaloff (1936), perform the former’s arrangements of three movements. it’s surprisingly faithful, as four as it goes, though Szigeti’s drooping diminuendi in the Pavane would have no doubt drawn a scathing comment in private from the composer, had he lived to hear it. (Warlock was eloquent on such matters, and not above personal attacks on those he considered musically insensitive to his requirements. He once, for instance referred to Bernard as “that emasculated offspring of a wet dream and a virgin’s menstrue.”) John Barbirolli does a marvelous job of bringing out the songful quality of the Serenade for Strings, while stressing its Delian lineage. Lambert (1937), heard again, eliminated most (but not all) of the portamenti and frequent dynamic gradients of Glorious John, to good if occasionally choppy effect. One version of The Curlew is included: Soames again, this time with Léon Goossens and the Aeolian Quartet (1950), in a superb reading that misses none of the work’s obsessive despondency and dark wisdom. (Another version, from 1931, with Constant Lambert and John Armstrong, was omitted for reasons of space.)
Among the rarities heard here is Cecil Cope (c. 1941) in six of the 12 nursery jingles that make up Warlock’s Candlelight , while the haunting The First Mercy is sung affectingly in 1950 (and with fine training in evidence) by “Master Billy Neeley, boy soprano.” The Pasquier Trio (1935) and the Griller Quartet (1947) each perform one of Warlock’s Purcell arrangements, to excellent effect: the Pasquiers with firm tone and excellent balance, the Grillers less stern, more intimate, yet absolutely clear in all four parts.
The sound, provided by Pristine Audio, is very good, especially when one takes into account that problems inherent with the gritty original discs – a common enough complaint about wartime 78s. Engineering quality was not always adequate, even for individual artists such ar Parry Jones, much less for choral groups with featured singers. A moderate amount of gate filtering was used by Pristine Audio, with some of the edges between filtered and non-filtered material always showing through occasionally, as does the odd scratch, presumably left in to preserve the constant frequency response. Some will no doubt find the filtering too interventionist; but I’ve heard a couple of these same 78s, and their sound, untouched, simply wouldn’t be tolerable to most ears – as these issues certainly are. Perhaps Pristine Audio should put up a before/after sampling on its Web site, just to show how sensitively it’s handled matters.
The liner notes are excellent. My only disappointment is that individual movements from such orchestral selections as the Capriol Suite and The Curlew were not banded.
If it isn’t clear yet, this is Hall of Fame material, in my opinion. For the music, the interpretations, the sound, the clear-sighted editing involved in choosing what was included: It is a monumental enterprise that deserves no less.