fallen dust newby bis

Fallen to Dust
James Newby (baritone)
Joseph Middleton (piano)
rec. 2022, Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany
Texts included
BIS BIS-2595 SACD [85]

I believe this is James Newby’s second recital disc for BIS. An earlier release, entitled ‘I wonder as I wander’ featured Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte and songs by Schubert, Mahler and Britten (BIS-2475); I don’t think we reviewed that SACD. Then, as now, Newby’s partner was pianist Joseph Middleton.

The present album has a very particular personal resonance for Newby. He relates that his sister Laura died in 2015 and since then he has wanted to do something dedicated to her memory. The starting point was Finzi’s Let us garlands bring because Newby sang ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ at his sister’s funeral – how moving that must have been. He and Joseph Middleton built this programme of English songs round the Finzi cycle. Inevitably, the selection is mainly serious in tone and often tinged with a sense of loss; however, there are some welcome lighter moments too, as we shall see.  

Newby and Middleton offer us two song cycles. Let’s consider the Finzi first. Let us garlands bring not only consists of five quintessential – and fine – Finzi songs; it also offers us a choice example of that composer’s discernment when choosing English poetry to set to music. Newby, perfectly supported by Middleton, conveys the melancholy of ‘Come away death’. I admire the lightness of touch both of them bring to ‘Who is Sylvia?’. The last two songs also fare well: ‘O mistress Mine’ is given a cheerful performance, in which both the vocal line and the piano part dance; ‘It was a lover and his lass’ is equally good-humoured, the rhythms nicely sprung. ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ is at the heart of the cycle; it is, quite simply, one of the greatest of all English songs. Poignantly, Newby tells us that when he made this recording it was the first time he had sung it since his sister’s funeral; perhaps that accounts for the special intensity of this performance. The pace is slow and solemn – as it should be – and hereabouts I greatly appreciated the richness of sound at the bass end of Middleton’s Steinway, which the BIS engineers have captured marvellously. Newby’s delivery is very intense; some may feel it’s too intense and, indeed, I wondered that myself the first time I listened, though I’ve since become much more comfortable with the approach. In contrast to the intensity is the still calm that’s achieved at ‘No exorciser harm thee!’ and then the artists make the hushed return of the main melody (‘Quiet consummation have…’) a moment of hushed beauty. I think this is a very imaginative account of the song; I enjoyed the whole cycle very much.

The other cycle is something of a rarity: Sir Arthur Somervell’s A Shropshire Lad. I freely confess that I used to believe, lazily, that Somervell’s songs were somewhat fusty and Victorian. My moment of epiphany came when I reviewed a 2019 recital by Roderick Williams and Susie Allen at which they performed the cycle Maud. They later released a recording of that cycle for SOMM on an all-Somervell CD, which also included A Shropshire Lad (review). In both the live performance and on the CD, Williams and Allen brought perception and intensity to Somervell’s songs and made me re-evaluate my thoughts – and appreciate the songs much more. James Newby and Joseph Middleton similarly enhance my appreciation of Somervell’s achievement.

AE Housman published his collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad in 1896, since when countless composers have felt the pull of these verses, whether setting individual poems or composing a cycle. Arthur Somervell can claim the distinction that his cycle of ten songs was first in the field. That may be a distinction, but, arguably, it’s also something of a curse because, down the years, some people may have fallen into the same trap that I did, underestimating Somervell and thereby allowing his settings to be overshadowed by the likes of Vaughan Williams and George Butterworth.

That said, some comparisons are inevitable. ‘In summer-time on Bredon’ is not as imaginative as VW’s matchless setting in On Wenlock Edge. Indeed, people familiar with VW’s response to the poem may be taken aback by the robust way in which Somervell treats the first four stanzas, returning to that mood for the concluding stanza. In between, he strikes a more reflective note for the two stanzas beginning ‘But when the snows at Christmas’. For ‘The Lads in their hundreds’, the last song in the set, Somervell employs a lilting rhythm, as Butterworth did in his setting. I miss the wistful melancholy that underpins Butterworth’s music. On the other hand, Somervell does something rather wonderful with the last three words of the penultimate stanza (‘will not return’); with this gesture Somervell shows his understanding of the poem’s core sentiment. So, his setting is not to be underestimated. Elsewhere, ‘Loveliest of trees’, the opening song, involves a winning, melancholic melody and Somervell trumps his own ace in the penultimate song, ‘Into my Heart and Air that kills’, by reprising, poignantly, the melody which we heard at the start of the cycle. That’s a most insightful device and the effect is rather magical. 

Somervell sets some poems which have been less frequently set by other composers. One such is ‘There pass the careless people’; he shows a fine musical response to Housman’s words. The fifth and sixth songs make an interesting pairing. The former is ‘The Street sounds to the Soldiers’ tread’, which Somervell makes into a robust marching song to accompany the soldiers as they pass by. Then ‘On the idle hill of Summer’ again speaks of marching soldiers, but this time the poet glimpses them from afar. This is a much more thoughtful portrayal of marching soldiery and Somervell’s music matches Housman’s insight.

James Newby and Joseph Middleton give a fine, nuanced account of Somervell’s cycle. Like Roderick Williams and Susie Allen, they make a compelling case for a re-evaluation of these songs. I’m delighted that we now have two fine and complementary readings in the catalogue. If you already have the Williams version you should certainly hear Newby as well.

The rest of the programme is well chosen and contains a number of gems. One such is George Butterworth’s Requiescat. This sets a poem which Oscar Wilde was moved to write on the death of his sister: Richard Stokes aptly describes it as “a numb little poem”. I hope it’s not presumptuous to think that James Newby selected this song to reflect the loss of his own sister. He sings it eloquently, not least in the sorrowful final stanza, and Middleton places the often-sparse piano part perfectly. The Butterworth is an ideal foil to Jonathan Dove’s All you who sleep tonight, which is one of a collection of settings of poems by Vikram Seth, dating from 1996. The words and the music poignantly explore the theme of loneliness.

I’m really glad that Newby selected Rebecca Clarke’s The Seal Man. The more I hear this remarkable, spooky John Masefield setting, the more I’m enthralled by it. As I’ve commented before, Clarke here seems to me to evoke a similar atmosphere to the one that Vaughan Williams creates in Riders to the Sea. Newby is compelling and dramatic in the way he tells the story while Middleton’s delivery of the highly illustrative piano part is terrific. I referenced earlier the intense performance of Finzi’s ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’. Even more intense is the performance of Finzi’s Hardy setting The Clock of the Years. I don’t recall that I’ve ever heard such a searing account of this dramatic song. Newby makes Hardy’s words leap off the page and Middleton’s contribution to this shattering performance is no less inspired. I was also greatly impressed by their handling of Gurney’s By a Bierside. This, too, is a setting of words by John Masefield, but whilst I suspect that Rebecca Clarke had a copy of the words by her side when composing The Seal Man, Gurney, who wrote his song while serving in the trenches in World War I, relied on his memory of Masefield’s lines. He may not have been word perfect in his setting but By a Bierside is, nonetheless, one of his greatest songs. Newby and Middleton convey the majesty of the words and of Gurney’s response to them, but I was, if anything, even more struck by the hushed way in which they deliver the words near the end (‘Death makes the lovely soul to wander under the sky. / Death opens unknown doors’). This is a marvellous performance.

As I indicated at the start of this review, there are some lighter moments in the programme. Finzi and Shakespeare account for some of them in Let us garlands bring; near the end there are two definitely lighter offerings. One is Liza Lehmann’s setting of Hilaire Belloc’s cautionary tale, Henry King. Newby and Middleton have great fun with this. But they really let their hair down with Wolseley Charles’The Green-Eyed Dragon. Charles was a composer and pianist and, as Richard Stokes tells us, he frequently accompanied Stanley Holloway in the 1930s. When you hear this song, that won’t surprise you: indeed, I wonder if Holloway performed it; I bet he did. It’s an unabashed ‘fun’ song, which Newby and Middleton despatch with flair, relish and excellent comic timing. It’s really an encore piece, I suppose, and here it brings down the curtain on the programme with panache.

This is an outstanding recital of English song. I love the perceptive way in which the programme has been devised and there isn’t dud choice in the selection: I simply haven’t mentioned everything in order to keep the review to manageable proportions. I’m well accustomed to hearing Joseph Middleton, both in concert and on disc. He’s always struck me as an ideal recital partner, working in the closest possible collaboration with his soloist and offering expert playing. Here, he’s on top form. I’m less familiar with the work of James Newby but he made a fine impression on me. Throughout the programme he sings with great clarity of tone and diction – I didn’t really need to follow the words in the booklet. He’s also perceptive and imaginative in the way he delivers the individual songs. He takes the listener with him through this programme in a compelling fashion.

As usual, the production values of this BIS disc are excellent. Richard Stokes provides a succinct but thorough essay which guides us through the programme and, in addition, all the words are clearly laid out in the booklet. I listened to the stereo layer of this SACD and was delighted with the results. Producer/engineer Elisabeth Kemper has recorded Newby’s voice with fine presence and has achieved a very good balance between singer and piano. I’ve already referenced once the rich bass sound of the piano; in fact, the instrument is recorded excellently throughout its compass. Last, but by no means least, I should mention the very generous playing time of 84:47; this is achieved without any compromises in the sound quality of the disc. BIS include a note that due to the long playing time, some machines may not play the final track – number 28 – in isolation. That’s a commendable warning to give: I can only report that I encountered no problems.

So, in every respect, this is an outstanding release.

John Quinn

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Jonathan Dove (b 1959)
All you who sleep tonight
George Butterworth (1885-1916)
Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979)
The Seal Man
Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
The Clock of the Years
Let us garlands bring, op.18
John Ireland (1879-1962)
The Three Ravens
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)
By a Bierside
Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Pleading, op.48 no.1
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
The sky above the roof
Sir Arthur Somervell (1863-1937)
A Shropshire Lad
Charles Dibdin, arr. Benjamin Britten (1913-1976)
Tom Bowling
Ivor Gurney
Dearest, when I am dead
Liza Lehmann (1862-1918)
Henry King
Errollyn Wallen (b 1958)
About here
Wolseley Charles (1889-1962)
The Green-Eyed Dragon