This CD is an excellent gap-filler! Of course, the Peter Warlock song ‘Take, O take those lips away’ is well known but a study of the Arkiv CD database reveals that virtually none of these songs is currently available. Whether they are first recordings or not is not the point: this is a valuable addition to the discographies of these three composers. Perhaps Geoffrey Stern is a relatively unknown quantity but I understand that there are three CDs of his music available – but not readily so. The webpage suggests that you write to him for more information – but, alas, he died last year (2005).
As a long-time enthusiast of the music of E.J. Moeran I was delighted to be able to review these two collections of songs. Of course, I have been aware of them ever since I eagerly opened the pages of Geoffrey Self’s excellent biography of the composer. But I have never had the opportunity of hearing them – at least until today.
Ernest John Moeran is credited with some fifty-ish original songs and more than twenty-five arrangements of folksongs for soloist and piano. However, his work in this genre was split up into a number of quite distinct phases. This is important in gaining an understanding of the composer’s mind as he developed his style and technique and came to terms with his wartime injuries and dependence on alcohol.
Just after the Great War he chose, as a preference, the words of contemporary poets. This was perhaps due to the strong influence of John Ireland who was well known for his settings of early 20 th Century English verse. From Moeran, we have fine songs by A.E Houseman, Robert Bridges and John Masefield, for example. Of course, the Shropshire Lad settings are of the best known poems – with When smoke stood up from Ludlow and The lads in their hundreds being the best of the set.
After 1924 Moeran came under the influence – for better or worse – of Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine). He began to turn his hand to the great deposit of Elizabethan and Jacobean lyrics. But there was to be change again a few years later: from 1929 until his death in 1950 he concentrated on setting the great Irish poets such as James Joyce and Seamus O’Sullivan. However there was a common thread thought this period – his interest in folk-song and of course A.E. Houseman.
The first group of songs on this CD are the Six Folksongs from Norfolk . Apparently, these were composed over quite a long period – from the dark days of 1915 until 1923. The original works and melodies were taken down and transcribed and arranged, by the composer, from folksingers in Norfolk. Six of these were published by Augener in 1924.
They are all simple in their construction and allow the words to predominate: the piano accompaniment is in no way intrusive but totally supportive. One of the beauties of these settings is the way that the soloist’s musical line points up the sense of the words.
One of the song titles, ‘Lonely Waters,’ (1924) was used by the composer as a title for and the basis of, a rather desolate and bleak orchestral piece.
The Seven Poems of James Joyce (1929) is a minor masterpiece. It is once again an ideal combination of words and music. The texts of these songs are simpler than the poet’s excursions into prose, yet their content is extremely poignant. They are typically about ageing and the transience of life. Living and the passage of the seasons are juxtaposed; love is never far away. The music may owe something to Delius but these songs are never derivative. Further, there is much reminiscence of the folk-song material that always inspired the composer. All lovers of Moeran’s music will see plenty here that is characteristic of his craftsmanship, genius and inspiration.
Peter Warlock’s Candlelight: a Cycle of Nursery Jingles is absolutely exquisite. Words are superfluous in describing them. They consist of twelve very short songs – the shortest is twenty nine seconds and the longest a mere one minute twelve seconds. Apparently they were composed for the composer’s six year old son, Nigel.
The majority of the texts are believed to have come from Nurse Lovechild’s Legacy , an innocent little book that was published during the carnage of the First World War. We hear settings of Little Tommy Tucker , I had a little pony , There was an old Woman and last but not least How many miles to Babylon? – plus six more! These miniatures appeal to children of all ages – from nine to ninety-nine!
The Three Songs were written in 1916-17 and are perhaps amongst the best of Peter Warlock’s works. The programme notes point out that their spare texture, the lack of bar lines in the score and the intense chromaticism owes much to Bernard van Dieren.
Originally they were published with the title of ‘ Saudades ‘ which is a Portuguese word implying, as Warlock wrote ‘a haunting sense of sadness and regret for days gone by … a word which has no equivalent in the English language.’
The first is a translation by L Cranmer-Byng of a text by Li Po – Along the Stream. The second is Warlock’s first attempt at setting words by Shakespeare and finally the lovely Heracleitus is a poem by the Greek poet Callimachus and translated by William Johnson Cory. All three poems have a bleakness that could have made these songs un-listenable – yet strangely there is a haunting beauty about them that makes them compulsive listening. The edition recorded here goes back to the original manuscript and is not the published version of 1923.
The last Warlock offering is a rather strange creation. It was cobbled up between the poet Bruce Blunt and the composer in precisely eighteen hours. The story goes that the poet wrote the words after spending an evening with the poet in the Fox Inn, Bramdean. Warlock wrote the music the next morning and gave the work a preliminary ‘run through’ on a piano in a Salisbury music shop. Bearing in mind the ephemeral nature of the words and music this is a mature and deep reflection on the transience of life and is a most welcome addition to this CD.
It is not my intention to give a biography of the little known composer Geoffrey Stern – save to say that his compositions are eminently suitable to this present CD. The composer himself once described his music as ‘English, modern but approachable.’ And this is certainly my experience with these songs. Unfortunately the composer died in 2005 in Canada of a heart attack: he was aged seventy. Two of the songs recorded here, Lean out of your Window and the eponymous Strings in the Earth and Air were especially composed for the present recording.
The first offering is Three Wordsworth Songs which were composed in 1953. They have not been published. Yet all three of these songs have a perfect balance of music and words. Perhaps some critics may argue that they are somewhat backward-looking to pre-war English songs – but this is beside the point. They are moving songs that engage both the listener and quite manifestly, the performers.
It is good that Dunelm Record have chosen to record Stern’s unpublished Four Songs of James Joyce back to back with Moeran’s Seven Poems . Stern’s settings are much more astringent that that of Moeran. In fact Strings in the Earth amd Air could be regarded as almost tortuous in its progress. Even here there is much that reminds the listeners of the more spartan songs by Peter Warlock. Yet any difficulties with this particular song are swept aside by the lovely Gentle Lady . The ‘sleeve-notes’ say that the accompaniment achieves a balance between the keyboard styles of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and jazz! Sounds odd – but it certainly works. A lovely song.
The last work, Legend , is odd – perhaps even true to say that it is totally off-the-wall. The words are by Henry Treece. If you do not understand the words you are in good company. Apparently the composer did not have a clue what it all meant either. But somehow the music captures the spirit of these words:-
The lads of the town drank down to the dregs
Then took a sharp axe to the top of the tree
But the thieves had been there first gathering logs
And the blackthorn cock sang steadily.
Make of it what you will!
The sound quality of the vocal line on the CD is crystal clear – although sometimes sounds a little bit distant. Paul Martyn-West has a lovely voice apt to interpreting these songs. He is well able to imbue each song with its own character. I worry a little about the piano sound – occasionally it just does not seem quite right –as if in a hole! Although, technically, Niger Foster is a sympathetic accompanist.
This is a really interesting CD. Even considering the minor niggles about the piano, I feel that it is an essential addition to the library of anyone who loves the ‘English School of Lieder.’
I hope to hear some more music by Geoffrey Stern over the coming years.