A cursory scan of the internet returns a sadly bleak discography of CDs featuring the music of Betty Roe. Aside from two releases during the late 1990s on SOMM, (The Music Tree and The Family Tree, both of which appear to have vanished from the SOMM website, but are happily available second-hand from Amazon), this new release on Metier is a welcome addition to the abundant and ever increasing discography of English song.
Featuring a host of exceptional artists from well-established and familiar singers Sarah Leonard and Stephen Varcoe to the current generation of vocalists represented by Anne Marie Sheridan and Robin Tritschler, the disc is excellently recorded and balanced. Nigel Foster who accompanies throughout the disc is a sensitive and responsive pianist.
Taking its title from the most substantial featured work, The Silver Hound, explores a range of styles typical of the versatile composer who works according to music needed for a particular occasion, and thus we are able to enjoy a diverse and interesting recital. From the serious to the humorous, Roe shows herself a master of word-setting with thoughtful complementary accompaniment.
A broad range of familiar and made-to-measure texts lie comfortably side-by-side: Shakespeare and Swinburne, the Book of Common Prayer and Hardy sit with Roe’s long-time collaborator Marian Lines and even a text by British music specialist and biographer Lewis Foreman.
Focussing initially on the disc’s eponymous work, The Silver Hound is an emotional and probing extended setting of a text by Ursula Vaughan Williams, elaborating on the Seven Ages of Man (As You Like It ). Roe responds dramatically and melodically to the subject of a long life through youth to adulthood and Robin Tritschler exhibits the full range of his rich tenor across the work, accompanied by Daniel Beer on the French horn. A finer performance would be difficult to achieve. The serious nature of the work and, whether by design or coincidence, its scoring makes it the ideal companion piece to Britten’s Canticle III: Still falls the rain, also for tenor, piano and horn.
Accompanied by solo songs and short cycles too numerous to discuss individually, several stand out as especially entertaining and provoked repeat listening:
Two Garden Songs, sung by Sarah Leonard and accompanied by Madeleine Mitchell on the violin are sweet and funny, ‘In this lone, open glade’ evoking peace, quiet and reflection, whilst The Critic is a bitter joke at the expense of a little weed. Anne Marie Sheridan’s wonderful focussed and clear tone is employed to great effect in a setting of the Magnificat, whilst also being delicately complimented by Emma Murphy on the recorder in The Life That I Have. Three Songs for Graham, performed with something akin to fatherly experience by Stephen Varcoe, is a brilliant miniature cycle. The idyllic image of a perfect round house in The Dream House is set against the humour of The Promising Gardener who never seems to achieve except good intention. My personal favourite, Scooting, evokes the whimsy of Victorian Music Hall to such an extent that one can almost hear it being sung by Marie Lloyd or Hetty King with audience participation. Finally, The Diva’s Lament, an hilarious tale of the over-the-hill OAP swings along with amusing almost misplaced verve, that highlights the truly enviable ability to successfully achieve a range of styles – some composers can only write thoughtful, serious music, some only humorous and irreverent – Roe is adept in both.
Though only a few of the songs that take a place on this disc have been discussed, there are many more to recommend it. Betty Roe’s charming and lyrical style, pervaded throughout with a unique sound of her own, fits very comfortably into the canon of accomplished English song composers without forcing comparison to her more familiar, often male, contemporaries. Tuneful and engaging, many of her songs deserve to be heard more frequently in recital, whilst at the same time pointing an inquisitive finger towards an overdue exploration of her larger works – especially the operas and choral works, the latter perhaps being ideal repertoire for a new disc by one of the more accomplished university choirs.