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British Song

Dickinson / Pears
Release Date: 10/02/2012 
Label:  Heritage   Catalog #: 240   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 1 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

This CD gets off to a fantastic start with Peter Dickinson’s setting of the enigmatic Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson’s (Lord Berners’) equally enigmatic Surrealist Landscape. This poem was dedicated to Salvador Dali. As my late father would have said, both poem and song are a little bit ‘long-haired’. However, bearing in mind the eccentricities of the poet and the dedicatee it could be little else. Dickinson has created a soundscape to match the ‘landscape’. I do not know if copyright allows me to quote more than a handful of words from the poem, but just three short lines will give the flavour for most listeners - ‘And a Bicycle Seat/ And a Plate of Raw Meat/ And a Thing that is hardly a Thing’. Do not ask me to analyse the musical or verbal Read more progress of this song in any detail. However, the programme notes assure the listener that three strands are active - a simple setting of Lord Berners’ poem in a style that ‘milord’ would have related to: this is recorded. Then the ‘live’ singer performs five vocalises, rather like improvisations, but precisely noted against the recording. Finally, there is a piano part utilising slow chords and plucked strings from inside the instrument. All of this is overlaid one on top of the other. It sounds like a recipe for chaos; however, it sounds great! Martin J. Anderson in a review in Tempo (December 1980) suggests that this compositional process is both ‘affecting and a shade unnerving’. It is a good description. Finally, it ought to be recalled that Peter Dickinson is a great advocate of Lord Berners and has produced an important musical study of that composer (see also his article).

From this particular listener’s point of view, the hardest work to come to terms with was Jonathan Harvey’s Correspondances (1975). These are settings of four poems by the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67). The songs are separated by a number of interludes and fragments for solo piano. The ‘novelty’ of this work is that it is left up to the performers to decide in which particular order the songs are sung. Just let us hope that pianist and singer agree before the recital! Harvey has intellectualised this ‘aleatory’ process by suggesting that it is ‘variable, just as in Baudelaire new life may precede or succeed death, and life and death are both contained in love…’ The ‘blurb’ in the Arkiv CD catalogue states that Jonathan Harvey can be ‘thought of as an English Stockhausen’. I would need to hear more of his music to decide if this is a true or fair assessment. Certainly, based on the present offering, his style seems to be more approachable than the German ‘meister’. Much of this song-cycle is moving and often quite beautiful. Baudelaire’s poetry has never been a favourite of mine: it is dark, ‘satanic’ and often depressing. However, as Paul Verlaine wrote, (Baudelaire’s poetry represents) ‘powerfully and essentially modern man in all his physical, psychological and moral complexity.’ He is a poet who transcends the stylistic hiatus between ‘romanticism’ and ‘modernism’. Harvey’s music is distinctly modern with its emphasis on symbol and suggestion - however there is a strong infusion of the more romantic qualities of emotion and straightforward musical statements. Whatever my personal tastes are, there is no doubt that one is in the presence of a masterpiece with Correspondances. I understand that this was Harvey’s first recorded piece.

I have never heard Lennox Berkeley’s Chinese Songs before. I was completely impressed. They were commissioned by the Park Lane Group for Meriel and Peter Dickinson and were first performed at the Purcell Room on 22 March 1971. There is a stylistic imbalance between the first four songs, which are set in Berkeley’s then-contemporary style, and the last one, which harks back to a simpler more diatonic mood. However, this seeming disparity does not cause any disruption to the coherence of this beautiful, if melancholic, cycle of five songs. The first three numbers consider the plight of separated lovers whilst the final two address the issue of loneliness. It is a perfect balance between the simplicity of the text, and the complexity of the emotions that these words engender. I have never been able to read any of Ted Hughes’ poetry without seeing a dead sheep in my mind’s eye: it was something to do with one of the images (page 42, opposite a poem entitled ‘The sheep went on being dead’) in his book Remains of Elmet (1979). I guess that this somewhat morbid image sums up the darkness of much of Hughes’ poetic output. However, praise where praise is due: there is nothing of the rotting carcasses in these poems set by Gordon Crosse in his excellent The New World: Six Poems by Ted Hughes. In fact, these poems were written especially for the composer. The liner-notes state that they have not been separately published without the music - however, I have checked the Collected Poems (2003) and discover that they are included there in the ‘Uncollected (1971-1973)’ section. Additionally, there are some discrepancies between the text in the book and those published in the liner-notes. For example, ‘When the star was on her face’ is given in the book and ‘When the star was on her brow’ in the song. The track-listing gives ‘I said goodbye to the earth’: the Collected Poems omits the word ‘the’ as does the printed poem in the liner-notes. However, the singer includes the word ‘the’! Not serious stuff, but it makes one wonder if there was a new recension of these poems when they were published. There is depth to these words, and considerable bleakness, however, every so often there is a flash of light - of hope. Appropriately, this work was written in 1969 the year that man landed on the Moon.

I was very impressed by the music. As Peter Aston has noted, the composer has managed to find a musical equivalent for every emotional nuance of the text: Crosse has created a magical sound-world that truly complements the poetry. Without a perusal of the score, it is impossible to analyse the form of this cycle - however with just a couple of hearings it is clear that the work is tightly knit. The musical texture at times feels Spartan. Nevertheless, there are moments of considerable effusion and drama. This work is another ‘classic’ example of why Gordon Crosse should hold a far higher place in the pantheon of British composers than has so far seems to have been the case. ‘The New World’ was commissioned by Lord Dynevor and is dedicated to Meriel and Peter Dickinson. The work was first performed at the 1972 Three Choirs Festival in Worcester.

I guess everyone of a certain age has read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Many people will have progressed to read other ‘Beat’ authors including the ‘visionary’ Allen Ginsberg and explored (in a literary manner) the drug-fuelled universe of William S. Burroughs. One of the poets closest to the heart of the movement was Geoffrey Nunzio Corso (1930-2001). Kerouac wrote that he was ‘… a tough young kid from the Lower East Side who rose like an angel over the roof tops and sang Italian song as sweet as Caruso and Sinatra, but in words … amazing and beautiful, Gregory Corso, the one and only Gregory, the Herald.’ Ginsberg, writing in Gregory Corso’s ‘chap-book’ Gasoline, suggested that the reader ‘Open this book as you would a box of crazy toys, take in your hands a refinement of beauty out of a destructive atmosphere.’ In June 1963, Peter Dickinson selected eight of these poems and created a cycle called Extravaganzas for unaccompanied voice. Six years later he added a piano part and the new version was duly performed by Meriel and Peter Dickinson at the Purcell Rooms on 16 October 1969.

These songs are effective - their brevity is part of the charm. Dickinson uses a variety of neo-jazz, popular and contemporary idioms to deliver these attractive numbers; however, I am not convinced by the ‘American’ accent that is used in the delivery of these songs.

Ask a hundred ‘music-lovers’ for their opinion of Elisabeth Lutyens and the words ‘scary’ will be mentioned by any that have come across her music. I was put off her style by a performance of O Saisons, O chateaux that I heard some forty years ago. I still recall feeling that this was the most appalling music I had heard up to that time. Yet since then, I have dug a bit deeper. For one thing, I discovered the delightful En Voyage - a piece of real, quality ‘light music’. Then there are the film scores. Who would have believed that ‘twelve tone Lizzie’, who railed against the ‘cowpat’ school of compositions, would have collaborated with that arch neo-Victorian John Betjeman in a somewhat bucolic film depicting The Weald of Kent. There is also the gorgeous ‘Magnificat’, which is well within the bounds of Anglican Church music, if a little modern for some ears. Therefore, it hardly came as a surprise to discover that I thoroughly enjoyed the Stevie Smith Songs on this CD.

The relationship between Elisabeth Lutyens and the poet Stevie Smith deserves a major dissertation in its own right. However, it is fair to suggest that they were friends and mutual admirers of each other’s art - up to a point. The present set of poems are ‘cabaret songs’ - with no pejorative comment intended. Nine of these ten numbers were composed in 1948 with the final song, ‘Be Off!’ completed in 1953. They were specially written for Hedli Anderson, who was a well-known ‘chanteuse’. Anderson had sung a number of Britten’s ‘cabaret’ songs including the delightful and hackneyed ‘When you’re feeling like expressing your affection’.

These present settings manage to capture the heart of Stevie Smith’s poetry. There is an excellent balance between humour, simplicity and wistfulness. They are essentially ‘light music’ and are easily approachable by anyone who enjoys British song.

Meriel Dickinson graduated from the Royal Manchester College of Music and had further studies in Vienna. She has devoted much time to the music of modern and contemporary composers. As well as those represented on this CD, she has worked with Berio, Boulez Britten, Cage, Copland. She has had works dedicated to her by many composers including by Andrzej Panufnik and John McCabe. Another aspect of her career is an interest in musicals: she has appeared in shows by Sondheim, Bernstein, Ivor Novello and Vivian Ellis; the latter of Coronation Scot fame.

I have already given a thumbnail sketch of Peter Dickinson in my review of his complete solo organ works released on Naxos. Stylistically, he explores a number of trajectories at one and the same time. His music covers a wide range: ‘from jazz to serialism and from aleatory writing to electronic manipulation and playback.’ Then there is ‘ragtime’ and the Americanisms of the Gregory Corso settings on the present CD. Sometimes more than one of these elements is present in the same work: to use an overwrought word, his style is truly eclectic. Peter Dickinson’s partnership, as accompanist, with his sister Meriel lasted for over thirty years.

The CD is well-packaged. The liner-otes are helpful for any listener approaching these less-than-familiar works. The texts of the songs are included. However, for non-French speakers and readers, the translations of the Charles Baudelaire songs are presented on the record company’s web page. The recording history of these pieces is a wee bit complex: the sleeve-otes explain when each piece was first released and on what album or CD. All the tracks have been engineered to give perfect reproduction.

Typically, I enjoyed this CD. I concede that the musical style of these songs is often a little removed from my usual comfort zone (Orr, Finzi, Moeran and brethren). However, British art song did not die with those above-named nor even with Benjamin Britten. The tradition lives on as is evidenced by all of the pieces on this CD.

-- John France, MusicWeb International
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