Notes and Editorial Reviews
Reviews of the earlier releases that make up this set:
It is one of the ironies of classical music that some works appear to succeed and others do not: often this has little to do with merit. Consider the two major song-cycles presented on this CD. One is well-known to most British music enthusiasts: the other is virtually unknown. There are currently some eight - surprisingly few in my opinion - recordings of Benjamin Britten’s great
Winter Words in the catalogue. At present there is only this recording of
Earth, Sweet Earth by Kenneth Leighton. There is virtually no reason that this should be the case – save that one was written nearly sixty years ago and the other was composed in 1985: it could be argued that
Winter Words has had more time to sink into the musical public’s collective consciousness. Yet, if any judgement were to be made based on the relative worth of each work, there would be little to choose between them. Both works are major contributions to English music and both are masterpieces in their respective composer’s catalogue.
Little need be said about the genesis and reception of
Winter Words. It is a song-cycle that has become justifiably famous since the original Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten recording made in the year of the work’s publication. However, three things are worth bearing in mind when approaching this work. Firstly, Graham Johnston has rightly pointed out that these songs have ‘about them a sanity and stability which is one of the hallmarks of English song, a certain equanimity which is lacking in the ardent wooing of [Britten’s settings of] Michelangelo and the fevered visions of Donne.’ There is an atmosphere about this work that sets it apart from much that Britten wrote.
Secondly, many composers have set the words of Thomas Hardy – with greater or lesser success. Gerald Finzi stands out as the poet’s greatest ‘musical interpreter.’ However, apart from
Winter Words, I believe that Britten set only ‘The Oxen’ from Hardy’s corpus. Peter Porter has suggested that Britten’s approach to the poems set in
Winter Words has ‘avoided all touch of the dreaded English pastoral, and [has] reproduced Hardy’s urban lyricism and particularly his Victorian or Darwinian doubt’. Most of these songs reflect the poet’s concern with the transitory nature of life and the opposition of youth and age.
And thirdly, the texture of the songs is generally seen to be sparer and more economical with material than the earlier song-cycles. This quality must be recognised by the performers. Additionally, the music contains a number of ‘extra-musical’ effects – for example, the ‘creaking’ of the table, the dipping of the wagtail and the choirmaster’s favourite hymn all find themselves portrayed in the vocal line and the accompaniment. However, it is essential that these are not over played.
For me, the touchstone of any recording of
Winter Words is the performance of the last song – ‘Before Life and After’. This is one of the finest songs in the whole repertoire of English vocal music. James Gilchrist passes the test – the clarity and purity of his voice are never in doubt. Both pianist and singer approach this masterpiece with confidence and understanding that makes this an ideal recording. In the rest of the cycle, the imagery of the songs is never overstated, but is subtly and satisfyingly presented. I am of an age that tends to look back to the Britten/Pears recordings of this work with a dewy eye. However, times move on, and I believe that this CD captures the spirit and the mood of the poet’s fears and reflections on the transience of life.
Winter Words, Op.52 was composed in 1953 between work on the operas
Gloriana, Op.52 and
The Turn of the Screw, Op.54. It was first performed on 8 October 1953 by Peter Pears and the composer at Harewood House in the West Riding, as a part of the Leeds Festival.
Earth, Sweet Earth, Op.94 is a work new to me, so I depend rather heavily on the CD liner-notes. There appears to be little else in the literature about this work.
James Gilchrist writes that this is a ‘monumental work, huge in concept and execution,’ it is a great sweep of emotion that uses the prose and poetry of John Ruskin and Gerard Manley Hopkins to ‘explore, with great tenderness, the writers’ helpless sense of loss when confronted by humanity’s inevitable, progressive march towards the industrialised modern world.’ This is presented not so much as a political problem, but more in the sense of a ‘loss of innocence’.
Adam Binks writes that Leighton preferred to label song-cycles as ‘solo cantatas’. This is a fair description of what turns out to be a long, dramatic and complex work. However, it is clear from hearing this ‘cantata’ that the work was conceived as a unity, as a complete work of art. It is not a selection of songs strung together that allows the soloists to pick and chose numbers and their order. Leighton stated a preference that the texts be sung in the order given, although he did make a suggestions for a less than complete performance.
The first ‘song’ is by far the longest, lasting over eleven minutes. It opens with a piano solo that reminded me in scope, if not style, of the opening movement of Finzi’s
Dies Natalis. In the text, Ruskin looks back at his youth with a nostalgia echoing Thomas Traherne – ‘there was no thought in any of us for a moment of there being clouds...’
The second song explores the Highland landscape at ‘Inversnaid’ and the dreadful thought of a world ‘bereft of wet and of wildness.’ This is followed by a beautifully contrived musical description of a winter landscape. The imagery is near perfect and reflects the poet’s thought that ‘the sun was bright, the broken brambles and all boughs and banks limed and cloyed with white’. Both music and words make the listener feel a distinct chill.
The fourth section is a passage from Hopkins’ Journals and considers the destruction of an ash-tree in the corner of his garden. This affects the poet intensely and for a moment he wishes to die rather than see the world destroyed any more.
‘Binsey Poplars’ is another poem of ‘mourning’ for trees. The poet’s beloved aspen trees have been felled. He believes that ‘after-comers cannot guess the beauty been’ of these trees: we are in danger of destroying the rural scene. Yet the final two poems are much more optimistic in tone. ‘Hurrahing the Harvest’ is a celebration of the landscape as late-summer turns into autumn. The final text is ‘Ribblesdale’: this makes clear that the poet understands the relationship between humankind and the natural environment – with all the tensions, problems and possibilities. Musically, this relationship is well stated and adds considerable value to the text.
Earth, Sweet Earth was commissioned by Neil Mackie in memory of Peter Pears, and was begun 1985 and was completed the following year. It received its premiere at Cheltenham on 6 July 1987.
I understand that a recording of this work was made around 1988 with Neil Mackie, tenor and John Blakely, piano on the Harmonia Mundi. It is not a CD that I have seen or heard. However, it was reasonably well-received in the Gramophone magazine with the reviewer suggesting that ‘strong curves of vocal melody, striking piano images (the cries of pain in Song Four at the felling of a beloved ash-tree) but the direct intensity at the heart of these outwardly difficult poems is only intermittently caught...’ The reviewer acknowledges that the ‘complexity of Hopkins’s imagery and prosody is reflected in the keyboard parts, which are dense, sometimes onomatopoeic and rather knotted in their frowning concentration, while the high, free vocal lines are more lyrical, more directly expressive...’
I enjoyed both works presented on this CD. James Gilchrist’s singing and Anna Tilbrook’s piano accompaniments are all that can be wished for. The articulation of the words and phrases are ideal and the sometimes onomatopoeic elements of both the vocal and piano parts are well-stated. The two song-cycles are very different in scale, musical language and performance, however the subject matter of both works is closer than a first glance would suggest. They make an ideal and imaginative pairing. It is to the credit of both performers that they interpret each work in a manner that is ultimately satisfying to the musical styles of each composer, yet manage to preserve the theme of loss of innocence from a spiritual and a practical point of view.
-- John France, MusicWeb International
It’s not quite the 50th anniversary of Gerald Finzi’s death, but already the tide of fine releases of this minor master’s songs is on the increase. Last month I gave an enthusiastic five stars to Roderick Williams and Iain Burnside’s collection of Finzi’s Hardy cycles (on Naxos). But if anything this is marginally better.
James Gilchrist’s bright, ringing tenor voice is compelling from the first note, but it’s the range of expression and unaffected musicality that leave the lasting impression. Anna Tilbrook is an outstanding accompanist: discreet when necessary, but also able to make the simplest phrase or chordal progression tell without a touch of exaggeration. And they work so well together: the pause between the final verses of ‘I say, “I’ll seek her side”’ (the opening song of Oh fair to see) is beautifully judged.
Both too have a fine feeling for the rise and fall of Finzi’s seemingly improvisatory long melodies. The climactic line from ‘In years defaced’ that gives Till Earth Outwears its title is almost heartbreaking. And in the great sequence A Young Man’s Exhortation there’s a keen edge and subtly heightened sensitivity in Gilchrist’s singing that shows what the otherwise excellent Mark Padmore lacks in his recent Hyperion recording. If you don’t know Finzi and want to try a disc to see what the fuss is about, make it this one.
Performance: 5 (out of 5), Sound: 5 (out of 5)
-- Stephen Johnson, BBC Music Magazine
Vaughan Williams, Gurney, Warlock, Bliss:
Vaughan Williams' song cycle On Wenlock Edge not only has enjoyed many fine performances, but its place in the composer's development and its uncommon scoring--for solo tenor with piano and string quartet--also has inspired some interesting and inventive programming on recordings. Some performers opt for a chronological survey, remaining within the genre of solo songs with piano and including Wenlock Edge as a kind of bonus (Anthony Rolfe Johnson on Naxos--originally released on Collins Classics); others exploit the work's "French connection" owing to Vaughan Williams' study with Ravel in 1908 (Philip Langridge, Howard Shelley, and the Britten Quartet on EMI, which includes Ravel's Quartet in F and Vaughan Williams' distinctly Ravellian Quartet in G minor); another program groups On Wenlock Edge with other Vaughan Williams songs accompanied by various instruments--violin, oboe, string trio (John Mark Ainsley and the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion); still another offers a later version of On Wenlock Edge for orchestra (Ian Bostridge with the London Philharmonic on EMI).
And then there is this new release that offers yet another concept: works by different 20th-century English composers that employ the same scoring as On Wenlock Edge (the Warlock piece is even more unusual, replacing the piano with flute and cor anglais). Consequently, we get to hear three very fine but rarely recorded works along with yet another superbly sung and played rendition of Vaughan Williams' beloved settings of poems by A.E. Housman.
Tenor James Gilchrist has a clear, ringing tone that may impress some listeners as a bit bright--especially when compared to the warmer, rich-centered tone of Ainsley or Langridge or Bostridge--but he's an excellent interpreter with technique to match, effectively capturing the dark despair of the lonely lover in Warlock's The Curlew (settings of poems by Yeats) and the wide range of dramatic expression in the Vaughan Williams and in Ivor Gurney's marvelously tuneful cycle Ludlow & Teme, modelled after Wenlock Edge both musically and in its use of Housman poems.
Arthur Bliss' 1954 work, Elegiac Sonnet (words by Cecil Day Lewis), was composed as a memorial to a pianist friend who committed suicide at 31 and was first performed by Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten, and the Zorian Quartet. It's a beautiful tribute that movingly ends: "Laurels enough he had. Lay on his heart a flower he never knew--the rose called peace."
There's a similarity of style that runs through all of these works, probably owing much to the nature of the poetic themes and language but even more to the uniquely English nostalgic/romantic world in which they were created. All of the musicians here--particular kudos to pianist Anna Tilbrook--deliver performances that seem of one mind and one heart, with Gilchrist proving an ideal advocate for these first-rate but difficult-to-program works. The sound represents Linn's usual high standard. Excellent!
--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com