David Power (b. 1962)
29 Songs (1985-2016)
Robert Rice (baritone), William Vann (piano)
rec. 2020, National Centre for Early Music, York, UK
Prima Facie PFCD185 [59]

London-born David Power was brought up in York. His youthful ‘credentials’, now disclaimed, lie in rock and electronica, Stockhausen and Boulez. The Power style has, since then, found a more melodic orbit and melody squares rather comfortably with song. This Prima Facie disc introduces the world to almost thirty short songs by Power and they span just short of an hour.

The composer is a purveyor of singable serious songs but do not look here for glamour, jollity or low-hanging fruit. Poets are selected out of the reassuringly comfortable rut. Typically, they are thought-stirring and not a single poem here feels ill chosen or ill set.

The Six Songs set poems by Duncan and Visiak. It Rains Behind my Eyes sets out its stall in the form of a quasi-operatic tempest. It is reminiscent of the storms that thread through Alan Bush’s cycle Voices of the Prophets. Passion (song 3) recalls Holst’s Varuna. There is satire and wit in play here, such as in An Old Song – mournful and concentrated – which is set firmly in the English song tradition. A strangely consoling bleakness (redolent of Warlock’s Corpus Christi) suffuses Remember Me. The Peacock Pie group turns to ‘mainstream choices’, Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter de la Mare. Here is introspection and sorrow and much else. The Dunce suggests the discombobulated madness of a watch movement gone haywire – a little spanner flung into the works. Five Eyes is a poem familiar from various other songs including, primely, by Armstrong Gibbs. This is a sinister skeletal ‘pirate’ of a setting with nicely judged contrast and a sparingly applied dramatic component. The final Stevenson song suggests the mad chemin-de-fer rush of John Foulds’ The Phantom Horseman.

In Six Starfall Songs wit intertwines with satire. There’s a slowly paid-out dirge in songs 2 and 3 of the set. During In My More Thoughtful Moments we can relish a Herrmann-like insistent ‘cell’ driving the ‘action’ forward. Contrast this with the musing nobility of Who Killed the Lightning? In How Old am I something is afoot, made the more potent by a fearful urgency. It’s a powerful piece. The Five Poetical Songs accommodate, in Poetry in Baghdad, a tolling reflection on the nature of verse. Passing Bells is all melancholy introspection and the deployment of protesting dissonance. Before these, I cannot recall hearing any songs drawing on poems by René Char. Here they are organised, early and late, side by side. The early songs tend towards more dissonance; the later towards greater melodic fibre. Power adds that, if he is still alive in 2045, he will do another setting of these three poems and bring this set to its conclusion with the same words set three times from the three stages of Power’s creative life. It’s an engaging if risky idea.

Baritone Robert Rice reflects a practised balance of sung contours, dynamic variety and word meaning. William Vann is skilled at subtle tone-painting as well. These songs call for and receive a skilled pianist. The partnership of composer, poet, singer and pianist seems much along the lines of Maxwell Davies’ cleverly contrived Image, Reflection, Shadow. I wonder if William Vann is related to William Stanley Vann (1910-2010), the English composer, organist and choral conductor.

As to this disc overall, it’s a pity that the sung poetry was not included in the booklet. On the other hand, Power sets English poems and fortunately Rice pays as much caring attention to enunciation as to melodic contour.

Rob Barnett

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Six Songs – 1991 + 2000
1 It Rains Behind my Eyes – (Text: Ronald Duncan).
2 Psychic Patient – (Text: Ronald Duncan).
3 An Old Song – (Text: E.H. Visiak).
4 Passion – (Text: E.H. Visiak).
5 Lamps and Lanterns – (Text: E.H. Visiak).
6 Remember Me – (Text: Ronald Duncan).

Peacock Pie – 2008 – 2013
7 My Shadow – (Text: Robert Louis Stevenson).
8 Tired Tim – (Text: Walter de la Mare).
9 The Dunce – (Text: Walter de la Mare).
10 Five Eyes – (Text: Walter de la Mare).
11 Some One – (Text: Walter de la Mare).
12 From a Railway Carriage – (Text: Robert Louis Stevenson).

Six Starfall Songs – 2008 
13 I Ordered a Smile – (Text: Paul Newman).
14 The Shipwreck – (Text: E.H. Visiak).
15 Coleridge – (Text: E.H. Visiak).
16 In my More Thoughtful Moments – (Text: Paul Newman).
17 Who Killed the Lightning? – (Text: Paul Newman).
18 How Old am I – (Text: Ronald Duncan).

Five Poetical Songs – 2009 – 2012 
19 Poetry in Baghdad – (Text: Andy Humphrey).
20 Passing Bells – (Text: Alan Gillott).
21 Chaffinches – (Text: Lizzi Linklater).
22 A Celebration of my Ignorance – (Text: Rose Drew).
23 I am a Poem made of Glass – (Text: Maria Garner).

Three Char Songs and Three Char Songs – 1985 + 2016 (Text: René Char).
24 On the Remarkable Horizon 1985
25 On the Remarkable Horizon 2016
26 Double 1985
27 Double 2016
28 Poets 1985
29 Poets 2016