The Silver Swan
Emily Gray (mezzo-soprano), Nicole Johnson (piano)
rec. 2021, The Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London, UK
No texts

There are correspondences between the lives of Michael Head and Eric Thiman. Both were born in 1910 and died within a year of each other. Both were professors at the Royal Academy. Thiman was a distinguished organist and wrote many works for the instrument as well as writing for choral forces and a series of song cycles. He was an examiner abroad, something that appealed even more strongly to Michael Head. Head left behind one hundred and twenty-four songs and as a fine pianist – he studied with Jean Adair, a pupil of Clara Schumann – he frequently self-accompanied in his recitals.  

Head’s songs are better remembered on disc than those of Thiman, which makes this disc of interest given the emphasis on Thiman’s contribution, though the distribution of songs is almost equal. Head had a generosity of lyricism that runs throughout his songs. Sweet Chance, That Led My Steps Abroad, a song that Felicity Lott has sung so poignantly, generates a Finzi-like plangency well heard in this performance, where fine ensemble and an unhurried ease are the watchwords. The Ships of Arcady generates a spell through the not uncomplicated piano writing playing off against the weightier vocal line. The Emily Gray-Nicole Johnson duo get to the heart of these songs, reflectively unfolding Blackbird Singing but brooding in Nocturne with its dramatically terse opening. O Gloriosa Domina is one of Head’s loveliest creations and the pairing take it at an unhurried tempo, the better to draw out its beauties. The Head selection has been well chosen to reflect the variety of his songs – their interior reflective quality, their lyricism but also their heartiness; try, for the last quality, Money, O! which has been extracted from his Songs of the Countryside cycle and sits securely in the Vaughan Williams vagabond tradition. A Green Cornfield cleaves to English refined pastoral.

The Thiman selection suggests a more robust outward-going song composer than the more refined Head. Fain Would I Change That Note has a quasi-orchestral accompaniment and a rich vocal line with a dramatic flourish at the end; a moment of exultant declamation. He is a romantic too, as Songs of Farewell shows and one who proves a subtle communicator in his Wordsworth setting, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. By and large Thiman’s settings reach a stirring climax with rather more conventional direction and effect than Head’s. Perhaps that explains why he is fonder of postludes than Head.  Thiman’s training as a professional organist is surely at the heart of The Birds where one can hear the thick organ chords in the piano writing and Easter Prayer is a suitably celebratory setting.  

There are five Christmas pieces, three from the pen of Thiman, whose bells ring out chordally in I Saw Three Ships. Head’s well-known Little Road to Bethlehem is here; a song one feels one has always ‘known’ – indelibly lovely and perhaps even better appreciated when heard sung in a choral setting, not that this performance is anything less than fine. Rather more complex harmonically but equally evocative is the disc’s closing item, Slumber song of the Madonna.

It’s not clear from the track listing that many of Head’s songs come from cycles so I’ve added the details.   

The existence of this album is due to Dorothy Webster Thomas, who had been encouraged in her singing by both Thiman and Head, and who later sang in City Temple, Holborn Viaduct, where Thiman was organist. She funded the album.

The recording was made, attractively, in a church in Upper Norwood. There’s a brief, though helpful note, but no song texts.

Many of Head’s songs are available elsewhere and in fact there’s strong overlap with an all-Head Hyperion disc in which Over the rim of the moon is sung by Ailish Tynan and Christopher Glynn (review) as  there is with tenor Richard Rowntree and David Bednall (review) in their Lammas disc devoted to Head ‘and friends’. There are a number of other recordings that include either a strong complement of his songs or a smattering.

Still, I can happily urge you to hear this most sympathetic recording both for Head but also for those (premiere recordings?) Thiman songs.

Jonathan Woolf

Help us financially by purchasing from

Presto Music
Arkiv Music

Michael Head (1900-1976)
Songs of the Countryside (Excerpts)
No. 5, Sweet Chance, That Led My Steps Abroad
Over the rim of the moon
No. 1, The Ships of Arcady
No. 2, Beloved
No. 3, A Blackbird Singing
No. 4, Nocturne
O Gloriosa Domina
Songs of the Countryside (Excerpts)
No. 6, Money, O!
A green cornfield
6 Sea Songs
No. 5, Lavender Pond
Little Road to Bethlehem
Slumber song of the Madonna
Eric Thiman (1900-1975)
The Silver Swan
Fain Would I Change That Note
Song of Farewell
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
Jesus the Very Thought of Thee
Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal
The Birds
Easter Prayer
In the Bleak Midwinter
I Saw Three Ships
Madonna and Child