Here we have one of those albums that are, simultaneously, a critics’ delight and nightmare. With the sole exception of John Armstrong’s March 1931 recording of The Curlew , currently available on both Pearl 58 and Symposium 1203, these are all of the recording of Peter Warlock’s original music and Purcell arrangements that appeared on 78-rpm records. Thus, in most cases, these are “world premiere” discs of his strange and eclectic musical world, comprised in equal part of “retro” Renaissance style, late-period British Romanticism, and quite modern, stark, and deeply melancholy modern music. There was no other figure quite like Warlock (nee Philip Heseltine) in the entire history of music, let alone British music, and so these recordings appeared, infrequently and with sometimes long intervals between them, like shards of dark, sharp glass in the otherwise placid surface of Elgar-and-Delius land.
It is perhaps, indicative of just how strange and unacceptable Heseltine’s music was to the British audience at large that only three of these records were issued in his lifetime: John Barbirolli’s sentimental but quite toughing rendition of the Serenade for Strings , and the five songs (four of them comprising one 10-inch disc) by this close friend, baritone John Goss. Goss comes in for some swollen and empurpled praise from annotator Giles Davies, and his crisp, lively interpretations are certainly quite good, but the voice itself strikes me as gray and nasal. In four of them, he is accompanied by lutenist Diana Poulton, playing what seems to me a very strange-sounding instrument, more akin to a baritone ukulele than a lute! Of course, this may have been due to the very primitive recording techniques, but I’m not so sure.
There are three versions of Warlock’s popular Capriol Suite , two full orchestra versions and an abridged arrangement for violin and piano. The latter is played by the celebrated Josef Szigeti sounding, as Davies aptly points out, uncharacteristically rough of tone. Davies is extremely hard on the earlier version of Capriol , possibly because Warlock himself detest Anthony Bernard’s conducting, and laudatory of Constant Lambert’s, but I found the edginess of Bernard’s version more emotionally affecting than Lambert’s, even though the London Chamber Orchestra plays with rough tone and poor ensemble blend under Bernard. Lambert’s Serenade is a cool reading, cleaner in style but lacking Barbirolli’s feeling. The two Purcell arrangements sound oddly heavy-handed to modern ears.
There is not enough space here to run over every single recording of the songs, though pride of place goes to this rare 1950 version of The Curlew . René Soames, a character tenor who sang secondary operatic roles under Sir Thomas Beecham, show himself to be an outstanding interpreter, and in this realm of song interpretation he is quite the superb artist, drawing out (along with the Aeolian String Quartet) the dark, moody qualities of this song cycle. The quality of the missing Armstrong version may be gleaned from the two songs ( Sleep and Chop Cherry ) that he corded with the International String Quartet as a filler. His voice has a prominent flicker-vibrato, a quality that Heseltine-Warlock himself disliked in singers, but it’s more attractive than Goss’s and he interprets quite well. Parry Jones, who is pleased to favor us with no less than six songs, had a nice voice but a somewhat whiny timbre. The legendary Peter Dawson sings splendidly in his version of Captain Stratton’s Fancy , which I prefer to Roy Henderson’s , but I liked Oscar Natzke’s version just as much, if not a bit better. Davies raves about the early, 1927 version of Corpus Christi as being “the most sinister and strange.” Well, of course it sounds sinister and strange, it’s pressed off-center! This results in that bizarre phenomenon known to 78 collectors as a “swinging copy,” which was not corrected for transfer to CD. I personally loved the 1936 recording, with the contralto Ann Wood and a very young Peter Pears as tenor. The last version, with Flora Nielsen and Soames, is too fast and completely misses the feeling of the piece.
Cecil Cope does a great job on the Six Nursery Jingles . Davies didn’t care much at all for Henderson, lamenting that Goss should have still been churning out Warlock discs, but by and large I like his firmer, richer baritone voice, and even though one or two interpretations are a little stiff, Gerald Moore’s piano makes up in expression for what Henderson lacks. Nancy Evans had a rather dull-timbred voice and sounds quite flat. There is a charming story-within-a-story in the booklet as the compilers were able to contact one of the members of the Truro County Girl’s School Choir, unidentified as such on the original HMV disc, about their recording of Rest Sweet Nymphs , a charming performance. Boy soprano Billy Neely does a surprisingly splendid job on The First Mercy . Dennis Noble is also superb in his two songs.
As for the sound, I admit to being disappointed by Andrew Rose’s proclivity to leave so much record noise in some of the finished products. The incongruity of some clean-up and restoration of missing frequencies and the harsh, grinding quality of the original discs (which, I am sure, were in rough shape when he got them) left a sad impression on me, but these seemed to be limited to the Bernard, Barbirolli, Goss, and some of the Parry Jones sides. Yet overall, I give this set a four-star review. Seldom has Warlock’s very personal sound world been so well served on record, and if one prefers one of the modern digital recordings of The Curlew (particularly John Mark Ainsley with the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion 66939 or Andrew Kennedy and the Pavao Quartet on Landor 279) to this one, it will certainly be because of the sonics and not the quality of performance. Generally, very well done and an important set for musicologists as well as collectors.