One Hundred Years of British Song – Volume 3
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Nathan Williamson (piano)
rec. 2020, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK

The Somm website announces that this is the final volume of One Hundred Years of British Song, a cycle which concentrates on works written after 1950.

Peter Dickinson wrote Let the florid music praise, a dramatic setting of W. H. Auden’s poem, in 1960 when he lived and worked in New York. Tenor Roger Norrington (now much better known as a conductor) premiered it with Dickinson on the piano. Listeners may recall that Benjamin Britten had this poem as the opening number of his 1937 song cycle On this Island. Britten provided sweeping piano arpeggios and a style of vocal delivery that seems to echo a Baroque instrumental solo. Dickinson, on the other hand, opens with slow, measured chords, gradually building up to a powerful, sustained climax. The poem deals with two aspects of love: the public admiration of beauty in the first verse, and a more intimate meditation on the subject in the second.

Peter Dickinson wrote Four W. H. Auden Songs as an undergraduate at Queen’s College Cambridge. His webpage says that they were performed privately in the presence of the poet, who was visiting the University. After the recital, Auden inscribed Dickinson’s copy of his poems: “To Peter Dickinson with many thanks for his nice settings and best wishes from Wystan Auden.”

Look, stranger on this island now is a splendid seascape replete with cliffs, gulls and ships. Dickinson’s response is a balance between surging sea music (Peter Grimes?) and quiet reflection. Eyes look into the well, a deeply troubling song, majors on a woman raped and murdered by a soldier. As the subject demands, this is slow, sad, justifiably angry and often intense. The composer has suggested that Carry her over the water is “a facetious comment on conventional marriage, where everything is singing agreeably of love – the white doves and the winds; the fish and a frog; and even the horses drawing the carriage.” This humour carries over into the music, with both the poet’s and the composer’s tongues firmly in their cheeks. What’s in your mind? is full of delicious sexual inuendo, perfectly mirrored by the vocal line and piano accompaniment. Stylistically, these songs owe more to Lennox Berkeley than to Britten. They take a distinguished place in the development of English vocal music, and would make a valuable addition to any singer’s repertoire.

John Betjeman has long been one of my favourite authors and poets. Many people of my generation will recall his fascinating films about architecture and railways. Madeleine Dring’s Five Betjeman Songs were first performed by Robert Tear in 1978. David Patrick Stearns (The Gramophone, April 2022, p. 75) has made a pertinent observation: Dring “fools you into thinking the impressionistic [opening number] A Bay in Anglesey sets the tone for the rest of the cycle.” It would be a wrong assumption. The next four songs explore various emotions and their resulting musical aesthetics. There is an appropriate bluesy feel to Song of a Nightclub Proprietress which adds to the pathos of the final lines “What on earth was all the fun for? / I am ill and old and terrified and tight.” Business Girls opens with gentle semiquavers evoking “Autumn winds blowing down / On a thousand business women”. Its pace reflects the “morning routine of shopgirls” getting ready for work. This charming melodious song perfectly complements this clever study of time and place. The robust Undenominational, with dramatic leaps in the vocal part, describes a “man of God” who is outside the mainstream churches. Upper Lambourne imagines horse racing from the perspective of a long-dead trainer. It is lyrical, with lovely easy-going piano accompaniment.

Nathan Williamson’s The Little That Was Once a Man has a complex and sometimes unsettling imagery I did not find it the least bit enjoyable or even interesting. The song set texts by Bryan Heiser, onetime special advisor to Transport for London and campaigner for disability rights. In retirement he began to write poetry. The sentiments of the poems are compounded by unorthodox vocal gymnastics, occasionally effective. It is not something I need to hear again.

The problem with John Woolrich’s song cycle The Unlit Suburbs is that it is too brief. The three songs together are over in under three minutes. The poems were penned especially for Woolrich by Irish poet Matthew Sweeney. The liner notes say: “Sweeney’s poetry often sits on the cusp of reality, employing flights of imagination which reflect and refract the everyday and commonplace all the more potently – what he called ‘alternative realism.’” Certainly, the sentiments proposed in the poems are surrealistic. The Submerged Bar still sells beer at 1960s prices, and the music has not been changed on the jukebox for years. Sounds like paradise. Rat Town is clearly a gritty dead-end place, where only the most dissipated would wish to visit. The Ghost Choir has a dark, gothic effect. Completely approachable, these gnomic songs are delightfully disquieting in their imagery.

I am not sure why Nathan Williamson’s solo piano piece Intermezzo appears on a disc of vocal music. He wrote it to celebrate the 90th birthday of a friend, amateur organist and pianist. The composer says that it is based on a “popular Welsh hymn” but does not tell us which one. It also nods towards the late piano works of Schubert and Brahms. Williamson describes it as “reflective, simple and whimsical” in tone. I cannot agree with the last adjective. Overall, this is introspective music from end to end.

The Eye of the Blackbird had its genesis in a 60-minute oratorio completed in 1991. This was composed at a time of sadness for Geoffrey Poole. He himself regarded it as “a mid-life account of death, the meaning of life, universe and everything”. The original was a concatenation of texts from many sources, includign American poet Wallace Stevens’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird. Stevens tries to describe relationships between “humankind, nature and emotions”. The poem by definition is subjective: Stevens is not proscriptive in his analysis. The booklet suggests that this song cycle was completed some 15 years after the oratorio, and only published in 2020.

Geoffrey Poole covers a wide range of styles in the nine sections of the poem he chose to set. The liner notes adduce “total chromaticism”, “free tonality of late Romanticism”, and a “Baroque parody”. The general impression is gained of an improvisatory feel to virtually all these songs. I think the listener will have to make several attempts to get to grips with this work. Despite the sheer beauty of much of the musical progress, its aphoristic nature makes it quite difficult to get an overall impression of the cycle.

The liner notes compiled by Nathan Williamson are helpful in every way. They offer commentary on the music and contextualisation within each composer’s achievement. I would have appreciated dates in the track listing for each work. On several occasions, this important information is not included at all. There are resumés of the artists and the texts of all the songs.

James Gilchrist’s singing is exemplary, and Nathan Williamson accompaniment always compliments the singing. The performance is enhanced by a vibrant recording, typical of SOMM. It is sad that this is the last disc in this fascinating project.

John France

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Peter Dickinson (b. 1934)
Let the florid music praise (1960)
Four W. H. Auden Songs (1956)
1. Look, Stranger
2. Eyes look into the well
3. Carry her over the water
4. What’s in your mind?
Madeleine Dring (1923-1977)
Five Betjeman Songs (1976)
1. A Bay in Anglesey
2. Song of a Nightclub Proprietress
3. Business Girls
4. Undenominational
5. Upper Lambourne
Nathan Williamson (b. 1978)
The Little That Was Once a Man (2016, revised 2019)
1. In someone else’s poem
2. 4 a.m.
3. Not being… (I) The ordinary way
4. Not being… (II) Misunderstanding
5. Moon at rest
John Woolrich (b. 1954)
The Unlit Suburbs (1998)
1. The Submerged Bar
2. Rat Town
3. The Ghost Choir
Nathan Williamson
Intermezzo (2012)
Geoffrey Poole (b. 1949)
The Eye of the Blackbird (publ. 2020)
1. Twenty snowy mountains
2. The Autumn wind
3. I Was of three minds
4. Which to prefer
5. Icicles
6. I know noble accents
7. Out of Sight
8. He rode over Connecticut
9. Evening all afternoon