dodgson songs SOMMCD0659

Stephen Dodgson (1924-2013)
The Peasant Poet – Songs Volume 1
Ailish Tynan (soprano), Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano), James Gilchrist (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
rec. 2021, Potton Hall, Saxmundham, UK
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0659 [64]

Stephen Dodgson may be best known for his guitar music, including two concertos. Guitarist John Williams and conductor Sir Charles Groves recorded them for Columbia Masterworks in the vinyl era. The First Concerto, a most pleasing and approachable work, appeared on MS 7063; the Second Concerto, just as attractive, on M 35172.

In the past several years, Toccata Classics issued five volumes of Dodgson’s chamber music. Here we have Volume 1 of what one hopes will be a complete collection of his songs. If this programme is your first encounter with the music of this fine composer, I recommend you start with the tiny set of songs entitled Irishry. They introduce several of the composer’s characteristics. He had a habit of seeking out little known and, many might think, unpromising texts. These four songs – the longest does not quite attain two minutes – are settings of poems by Joseph Campbell (1904-1987). If you have never heard of him, you are in good company. The first song introduces us to two tinkers, he and she, in surprisingly solemn, even grandiose music. The second song is a touching portrait of Essy, the midwife, as she goes about her rounds; the piano part is dominated by a sprightly, repeated rhythmic pattern. Rich harmonies in the third song support Gehenna, a mill girl who passes ‘like an outcast thing’. And both vocal line and accompaniment are full of rather quirky humour in the fourth, Rags and Bones.

Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount might be another good point of entry: Dodgson’s baroque-like accompaniment charmingly complements Ben Jonson’s poetry. Four Poems of John Clare could be yet another. These songs for voice and guitar were recorded in 1969 on Columbia Masterworks by the artists for whom they had been written, Wilfred Brown and John Williams. Brown, a fine and deeply admired tenor, who died in 1971 at only 47, was already ill at the time of the recording and not in his best voice. As far as I know, his performance has never appeared on CD. Soprano Antonia Gentile sings them on a highly recommendable Naxos disc (review) with Daniel Bovey on the guitar, and now we have James Gilchrist accompanied by Mark Eden. Gentile’s clean, clear voice suits the angular vocal writing rather well, but Gilchrist is arguably more alive to the humour, drama and pathos in these short songs.

Dodgson’s music is essentially tonal, but the melodic line often reserves a few surprises, and harmonies can certainly be astringent. It is music with a strong human quality, impeccably conceived for the forces needed for its performance, and often composed for particular artists. I have heard it described as dry, even as lacking in emotion. Those who react in this way, I believe, may not have given the music a chance. There is no surface display, and few elements draw you in immediately. It is the archetype of music that reveals its secrets slowly, but when it does one experiences music of great integrity, charm and beauty.

The sheer variety of expression and method can be seen in a comparison of two songs. Tideways is a muscular settings of Ezra Pound (few composers would have seen the potential for song there); Inversnaid is a prayer to nature exemplified by a stream. Schubert’s hand can be felt here – the stream is heard in a frequently repeated melodic fragment in the piano part. Also, consider Mrs Hen, the simple nursery rhyme setting, and The Monk and his Cat (written as a 90th birthday present for Wilfred Mellers), where a recorder imitates the feline companion with varying degrees of realism.

SOMM wanted to bring these songs to wider familiarity, so they have assembled an impressive group of performers. There is no weak link; a special mention goes to Christopher Glynn, who plays two short solo pieces and accompanies all the songs except the John Clare settings. The sung texts, provided in the booklet, reveal many instances where the composer chose to alter words or titles to suit his purposes. The essays by Robert Matthew-Walker and John Warrack give valuable background and biographical information. One essay is an exposé on the neglect of Dodgson’s music, the other concentrates principally on the texts. More information on the music itself would have provided a useful listening guide.

William Hedley

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Songs and performers
Four Poems of John Clare [c, f]
Mrs Hen [b, e]
Heaven-Haven [d, e]
Five Eyes [b, e]
The Monk and his Cat [a, e, g]
Bush Ballads (Second Series) [d, e]
Eight Fanciful Pieces: A Leaf in the River [e]
Eight Fanciful Pieces: Shrovetide Procession [e]
Irishry [a, e]
Tideways [a, c, e]
Inversnaid [c, e]
Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount [c, e]

Ailish Tynan (soprano) [a], Katie Bray (mezzo-soprano) [b], James Gilchrist (tenor) [c], Roderick Williams (baritone) [d], Christopher Glynn (piano) [e], Mark Eden (guitar) [f], Ian Wilson (recorder) [g]