Roderick Williams (baritone), Elizabeth Atherton (soprano), Ian Burnside (piano) Classic Children's Songs Just Accord Music JUSCD003 [75.41]
A gem of a disc from Just Accord, Classic Children's Songs offers a delightful programme of settings by a wide range of composers of some of the finest children's poetry. All the great names are here -A. A. Milne, Hilaire Belloc, Walter de la Mare, Rudyard Kipling, Edward Lear, Lewis Carroll, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Scottish writers Robert Louis Stevenson and Kenneth Grahame—while the sleeve notes open with an excellent essay on the rise and "golden age" of classic, imaginative children's poetry, which helps to put the works in context.
Many of England's great composers are represented: Benjamin Britten, Herbert Howells, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, Edward German, Lord Berners and Arthur Somervell, for instance. I was delighted to see composers such as Donald Swann and Harold Fraser-Simson here, too. There is a broad range of composition dates, from the turn of the last century through to the present day (with a wonderful inclusion from Radio 3 presenter Chris de Souza). Some of the songs are more "musical" than art song (stylistically speaking), yet despite the variety in dates and the difference in compositional styles, the works all elucidate their child-orientated subject matters beautifully, and work excellently as a programme set.
The poems are all about the innocence, beauty and excitement of the children's world, the magic and mystery, the exploration and discoveries, and all the songs are true to this spirit, capturing the nuances wonderfully. Roderick Williams, with his velvety-rich, gorgeously dark baritone, and Elizabeth Atherton (who captures both the musical sound and slightly more Edwardian parlour-song style brilliantly) are adroitly and sympathetically accompanied by a lively Ian Burnside. Both singers have beautiful enunciation, a lovely dramatic quality, and provide excellent and often amusing characterisations (such as Williams' weeping in Henry King, or the snorting of the pig in There Was a Lady Who Loved a Pig) and accents (the voices of the guard in Hello Jolly Guardsman and the smuggler in A Smuggler's Song). The poignancy of the songs is also well-evoked, such as in Kipling's deeply moving My Boy Jack.
The highlights of the disc? Without a shadow of a doubt Roderick Williams singing in Elvish in Tolkien's Namarie, a song with a strong Gregorian Chant sound as actually suggested by Tolkien to Donald Swann; the lyrical opening TheOwl and the Pussy Cat; Armstrong Gibbs' atmospheric version of de la Mare's Five Eyes; Fraser-Simson's famous version of Buckingham Palace and incredibly tender Vespers; and Somervell's gentle Wynken, Blynken and Nod, which concludes the disc.
There are only two criticisms to be made of this record. First, the lack of texts: although the disc does give a website link where one can access the words, this is not much use if one doesn't have immediate access to a computer! My second complaint is the glaring omission of Roger Quilter, one of England's finest song composers, whose Robert Louis Stevenson settings are unrivalled, and whose version of Lamplighter in particular, one of the most exquisitely-crafted and perfect songs ever written, really should be here. Otherwise, this disc is a fantastic combination of lovely settings and some of the best children's poetry. A charming compilation that both children and nostalgic adults will treasure. --Em Marshall
The Primrose Piano Quartet Susanne Stanzeleit (violin), Susie Meszdros (viola), Bernard Gregor-Smith (cello), John Thwaites (piano) Bridge, Howells, Alwyn, Scott Meridian CDE84547 [66:33]
The Primrose Piano Quartet are to be most highly commended for their outstanding work in bringing the neglected works of less familiar English composers to light, particularly on their latest release with Meridian records. Here they perform piano quartets by Frank Bridge, Herbert Howells, Cyril Scott, and William Alwyn.
The disc opens with Bridge's Phantasy Piano Quartet, written for W. W. Cobbett's famous competition, which requested submissions of single-movement works, recalling the "Phantasies" of sixteenth and seventeenth-century English chamber music (Bridge's Piano Trio had won the Prize three years earlier). Composed in 1910, this Phantasy Quartet presents passionately lyrical sections interposed with playful, light scherzos, and a gorgeously tranquil ending that the Primrose Piano Quartet captures perfectly.
Herbert Howells' Piano Quartet of 1916 was dedicated "To the hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it." Chosen Hill in Gloucestershire (Howells' home county) was a favourite haunt of Howells and his friend Gurney, another English composer who produced works of tremendous poignancy and beauty. The work is superbly performed, with its opening movement, Allegro moderato, full of restless, searching energy contrasted with a wonderfully rich, romantic slow movement.
William Alwyn's Rhapsodyfor Piano Quartet, with its beautiful chromaticism, is another single-movement work, of typically Alywnian rhythmic drive. Although written in 1950 --much later than the other works on this disc— the work nonetheless inhabits a similar sound world to the other pieces, and shares with them an intensity and luminosity peculiar to English music of the early twentieth century period.
The disc concludes with Cyril Scott's Quartet. Scott was one of the "Frankfurt Group" of predominantly British composers who studied composition together in Frankfurt (the others were Percy Grainger, the lone Australian in the group, Roger Quilter, that craftsman of most exquisite songs, Norman O'Neill, and the great musical patron Balfour Gardiner). Scott composed his Quartet when he was 21. Although he is now generally forgotten, by then his first symphony (which he later withdrew) had received its premiere in Germany, and his second symphony was soon to be conducted by Sir Henry Wood. The Quartet received its premiere in London in 1903 with Scott himself playing the piano part, after persuading Rudolf Kreisler to be the violinist. Kreisler's involvement brought the composer to the public's notice in a way which, as Scott said, "short of murder, nothing else could have done"! The confident writing and deep feeling of this work are astounding. It contains storms of impassioned outbursts in its romantic Allegro maestoso con spirito and Andante molto espressivo movements.
This is a disc that I highly recommend. It is well presented, with scholarly notes from Francis Pott. The incredibly accomplished Primrose Piano Quartet -which includes some of Britain's most acclaimed chamber musicians—play together with an ease and kinship that belies the difficulty of the music. The musicians display a polished rapport and excellent musical understanding and communication, and they capture the questing nature of the pieces and their glorious shades of light and dark brilliantly. Radiant performances of radiant music. --Em Marshall
We are very pleased to welcome Em Marshall to the Albion team. Em brings to the magazine a background in music and freelance journalism. She is also the director of the English Music Festival, profiled in our last edition.--The Editor.