Parry’s songs are too little known. Individual songs crop up on discs or, even more rarely, in recital programmes but to the best of my knowledge there have only been two CDs devoted to his songs. One is a Hyperion release, recorded as long ago as 1997 by Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson (CDA67044), which contains 30 songs, all but three of them from his sets of English Lyrics. The other is a much more recent offering from Delphian which contained 27 songs drawn from several of the English Lyrics sets. When I reviewed that disc, which was as excellent as it was welcome, I concluded by saying “Who knows when there’ll be another album of Parry’s songs …?” Happily, within two years SOMM have provided the answer to that question and the evenRead more better news is that this disc is planned as the first of four which will encompass all twelve volumes of English Lyrics, which in total comprise 74 songs.
The notes accompanying this disc are by the leading authority on Parry, Jeremy Dibble. He refers to the extent to which nineteenth-century British composers were influenced by – I’m tempted to say were in thrall to – German composers. However, as the century wore on British musicians struck out for greater independence. As Prof. Dibble says: “Although happy to absorb the musical precepts of German symphonic ideology, composers and scholars sought to rediscover their own heritage … For Parry this meant the assertion of English as a language to be sung.” So Parry set out to compose songs in which the best of English literature was to the fore. The English Lyrics were composed between about 1874 and 1918, though the last two volumes were compiled and published posthumously.
Bearing in mind the Germanic influences on Parry the songs which come at the end of this program are worth discussing first. These are five settings of Shakespeare sonnets and they are not part of the English Lyrics. A sixth Sonnet setting, No longer mourn for me, was eventually incorporated into the Second Set of English Lyrics. The four Sonnets that constitute the last four tracks on this disc were set by Parry in a German translation, though he made some small amendments to the music to enable performances in the original English as an alternative. Here James Gilchrist sings them in German and I found it fascinating to hear them in that language. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to say that the language sharpens one’s perception of how thoroughly Parry had steeped himself in Lieder. The most famous of these texts is Shall I compare thee. The words are eager and ecstatic and Parry rises to the challenge. His setting of When to the sessions is passionate until the final couplet when the calmness of the words is reflected in the music. I’ve often admired James Gilchrist in Lieder and he’s very well suited to what I might call these “English Lieder”. He also sings If thou survive my well-contended day. Parry set this only in English and it has never been published. Indeed, Jeremy Dibble says that it is heard here for the first time. It’s an appealing piece featuring long, ardent vocal lines over a rippling accompaniment. The four German settings of Sonnets were penned between 1873 and 1882 so they date from the years when Parry was beginning his exploration of English song writing.
The first two sets of English Lyrics are presented complete at the start of this disc. They’re sung respectively by Susan Gritton and James Gilchrist. Later on Roderick Williams sings five of the six songs that comprise the seventh set. It’s mildly frustrating that in what is to be a complete recording of the English Lyrics we don’t get to hear each set complete. However, I’m sure that varied or thematic programming was an important consideration and this recording sets out to explore mainly Parry’s settings of Elizabethan and Jacobean poetry.
Susan Gritton sings Set I and in the opening two songs I liked her round, warm tone. The third song, Where shall the lover rest, is a setting of Sir Walter Scott which Jeremy Dibble describes as “cumulatively dramatic in its progress”. It may seem an odd thing to say about a lyric soprano who has made a name for herself performing big, dramatic roles in both the concert hall and the opera house, but here I enjoyed her singing less when the voice is at full stretch. It just seems to me that in such cases her delivery is a bit too full-on for the recital stage. So while I admire very much her intensity and engagement in this song I derived more pleasure when the music calls for more restraint as, for example, in the heartfelt lament that is Willow Song. Similarly I thought her performance of One silent night of late, further on in the program, was a winning one.
James Gilchrist sings the Second Set complete; these are all Shakespeare settings. I’m aware from comments that I’ve read elsewhere over the years that his voice isn’t to everyone’s taste but it’s very much to mine. O Mistress Mine is an eloquent song and Gilchrist’s singing is very expressive. His plangent tone is just as well suited to Take, O take those lips away, which I think is a fine song. Later in the program we hear Weep you no more, a lovely, melancholy setting which Gilchrist enhances further through his sensitive delivery. He’s also very successful in conveying the impetuous eagerness of Rosaline.
The third singer is Roderick Williams, one of the finest exponents of English song – and much else. He sings four of the Third Set of English Lyrics. These include a couple of settings of poems by Richard Lovelace, a Royalist officer imprisoned during the English Civil War. The poems in question were written during his incarceration. Parry’s music for To Lucasta on going to the wars and the way that Williams sings the song leave us in little doubt that these lines were penned by a gentleman. I also admired the way Williams puts across Lovelace’s words in To Althea from prison, not least the noble sentiments of the final stanza. Williams is superb in Why art thou slow. Here the poet, Philip Massinger, longs for death and Parry’s setting is very powerful. But Williams is just as successful in lighter pieces. In On a time the amorous Silvy he uses rustic accents for the words of Silvy and her shepherd lover. The effect is not overdone and so is characterful and amusing. He displays a similar lightness of touch in Follow a shadow. During all his contributions to this disc this fine singer gives great pleasure, as usual, through the sheer quality of the sound of his voice but the pleasure is magnified significantly by his great care for the words.
I haven’t mentioned the contributions of Andrew West. Parry’s piano parts aren’t perhaps as significant as those of composers such as Gurney or Finzi. They complement the sung line – and do so extremely well – but leave the singer as the focus of attention. West does a splendid job throughout these songs.
As I said at the outset, Parry’s songs are too little known. He is discriminating in his choice of texts to set – far more so than Elgar was – and his songs always show fine craftsmanship. In the last analysis I think that, like Elgar, his songs don’t constitute the most significant part of his output but they are well worth hearing. And here the songs receive the best possible advocacy. I hope that SOMM plan to use these four fine musicians for the remaining volumes in the series.
The recordings themselves are very good; the acoustic seems just right and there’s a very good balance between the singer and the piano. The documentation is excellent; Jeremy Dibble’s notes are both expert and very readable and the texts are clearly presented.
If you’re going to collect this set there will be inevitable duplication with the Delphian release that I mentioned earlier but I won’t be discarding that excellent disc since it’s valuable to have an alternative view of at least some of Parry’s songs. However, this new SOMM series promises much and if the future volumes match the achievement of this first release then the series will be a very important addition to the Parry discography.