leigh partings tremula

Walter Leigh (1905–1942)
Partings – A Walter Leigh Portfolio: Songs and Solo Piano Music
Sara Stowe (soprano)
Charles Wiffen (piano)
rec. 2021, Bath Spa University, UK
Tremula Records TREM105 [51]

The English composer Walter Leigh died in a tragic World War II echo of George Butterworth’s fate in World War I. He was active as a composer in many ‘theatres’. There are two comic operas of which the second is Jolly Roger which ran in London with George Robey as the lead. Your curiosity about this piece will be repaid if you invest in the Lyrita CD of the Radio 3 broadcast on REAM2116. There were also several revues and a pantomime. The last two songs on this CD proclaim that neglected part of Leigh’s heritage, as much as Shostakovich does in his musical Cheryomushki.

Film music also fell under Leigh’s hand. His score for Basil Wright’s The Song of Ceylon drew favourable attention. Other films for which he furnished music were Pett and Pott (1934); Dawn of Iran (1936); The Face of Scotland (1938); The Fourth Estate (1939) and Squadron 992 (1940). The latter features in a Cd shared with music of George Butterworth (review). Some of his chamber music has been recorded by Dutton (review).

The multiply-recorded Harpsichord Concertino is easy enough to access (review), but as for his other bright-eyed overtures they can be heard on the rather short-timed Lyrita SRCD289. They are Jolly Roger (the overture to the aforementioned comic opera), and Agincourt, a BBC commission for King George V’s Jubilee, also on a Chandos release (review).

The present compact compendium of Leigh in ten songs and three piano pieces is Tremula’s and Kenrick Dance’s second such outing. The first was and is on Tremula TREM 101-2, issued in 1992 and including piano music and several songs as well as Music for Three Pianos and Three Waltzes for two pianos. This, Tremula’s second release, in large part, comprises early works, including the Piano Sonata of 1926, which is recorded for the first time.

Natty stiff cardboard folder for the CD has rather tight insert pockets. That said: better a firm grip on the disc than a loose one. The 1930s ‘Blue Riband’ ocean liner design choices for the disc and card envelope are immaculate, pleasing and to the point.

The notes (English only) by pianist Charles Wiffen are very full and run to eight pages. The booklet includes the sung words as part and parcel of the annotation. Watch out though, the poems are sung in a different order from the sequence in which they are reproduced in the booklet. Also, there’s no trace of the words – except in what you can hear sung – for the last two songs on the disc. There’s a really excellent studio portrait of Leigh from 1931.

The songs first. The Three Roundels (a title also favoured by Bax in a very different style) set poems by Dorothy Frances Bloomfield (1858-1932). These are Gallic-impressionist in character and make indulgent water-colour play with the very highest reaches of the trembling soprano voice of Sara Stowe. These are most un-English of settings, although they are somewhat reminiscent of Frank Bridge’s post-Great War songs. The Hill Pines is another song which is English in the heat-hazed ecstatic sense. It sets the poetry of Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges (1844-1933). The sun bears down, the axe swings, the slain tree raises clouds of dust, the shadowed pines sigh. Why have you stolen my delight is a notably passionate setting where some of the other songs float in and out of focus in the shimmer. This would be a good choice for an encore or a display of emotional and technical display in a voice competition. The Field in Gloves is a short song to words by Frances Cornford (1886-1960).

Michael Drayton (1563-1631), sometimes termed “The English Ovid”, wrote The Parting. Leigh here calls forth cut-glass language typical of the Li Tai Po settings by Lambert and Bliss. A delicately drawn melancholia threads its pallid way through By the Dark Lagoon (V. C. Clinton Baddeley (1900-1970)). It has the well-balanced slow sweep of music-theatre in every bar. Baddeley, by the way, founded the record company Jupiter which apart from making British poetry available during the years 1955-1970 also recorded music by William Wordsworth.

Finally we reach a brace of light music theatre songs. The saucy Rock-Bottom Blondes to words by Herbert Farjeon (whose sister was author Eleanor and brother (I think) was composer Harry) is a nicely naughty song: West-End music theatre and a raggy-jazzy accent. Whose Little Girl? (words by Ethel M Kelly) is minute song (less than 60 seconds); a sort of G&S updated to the 1930s milieu.

Of the piano solos his Eclogue (a Spenserian and Finzian title) has a sing-song quality but fends off simple-mindedness. Melody is spun with a most resourceful compositional skill. Leigh is as happy to repeat material as we are to hear it, such is the quality of this little four-minute piece. It was published and has, as a preface, a verse from William Collins’ Persian Eclogues to set the scene.

The three-movement Piano Sonata runs to 17 serious but not stolid minutes. It has a noble and late-romantic mien tartly offset by stygian miasmic depths; the latter equivalent to the black-blue reefs deep in Constant Lambert’s Piano Sonata. It would work well on the same programme as the Lambert. The populist theatre ephemera embraced by Leigh in other contexts is absent. Leigh’s concentration never slackens and in the martellato swirling finale there are yet more Lambert resonances. You might well exclaim “Music Ho!”.

The Three Machine Dances are bejewelled little things from 1924. Like miniature dogs which have no inkling of how small they are, the moods and emotions delved into are not trivial. We are the beneficiaries. The first dance is implacable and forward-moving. The flittering of iridescent wings can be envisioned in the second, which had been entitled by Leigh as “Parade of Grasshoppers”. Again, that Lambertian feel. The third and final dance has its meed of flamenco machismo trimmed with explosive rills of sound. No doubt there are other parallels but perhaps Leigh had heard Joseph Holbrooke’s Four Futurist Dances (1913) (Cameo).

We are left, having enjoyed the multifarious aspects of Leigh’s creativity, wanting more to be brought out into the light from the oubliette of time.

Rob Barnett

Availability: Birnam CD Shop

Three Roundels (Blomfield)
1. Love, Though I Die
2. My Lips Refuse
3. Other Lips Than Yours
4. Eclogue for piano 
5. The Hill Pines (Robert Bridges)
6. June (Robert Bridges)
7. Why Have You Stolen My Delight? (Brett Young)
8. Fields in Gloves? (Frances Cornford)
9. The Parting (Michael Drayton)
Sonata for Piano (1925-26)
10. Moderato
11. Adagio
12. Vivo
Three Machine Dances (1924)
13. No 1
14. No 2
15. No 3
16. By the Dark Lagoon (V. C. Clinton Baddeley)
17. Rock-Bottom Blondes (Herbert Farjeon)
18. Whose Little Girl? (Ethel M Kelly)