Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Echoes of Parsifal: songs and piano music by Robin Holloway on Delphian

Robin Holloway - The Lovers' Well - Delphian
Robin Holloway The Lovers' Well, Souvenirs of Monsalvat; Clare Lloyd-Griffiths, Kate Symonds-Joy, James Robinson, Simon Wallfisch, Edward Rushton, William Vann; DELPHIAN  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 18 December 2018 
Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A surprising and engrossing selection of Robin Holloway's songs and piano music, where lyricism, modernism and humour intersect

This disc from Delphian features a fascinating selection of songs and piano music by Robin Holloway (who celebrated his 75th birthday in 2018), including two items for four singers and piano,  The Zodiac Song and The Food of Love and a suite for two pianos, Souvenirs de Monsalvat, along with Three Songs to Pomes by Edmund Waller, A Medley of Nursery Rhymes and Conundrums and The Lovers' Well, all performed by Clare Lloyd-Griffiths (soprano), Kate Symonds-Joy (mezzo-soprano), James Robinson (tenor|) and Simon Wallfisch (baritone) with pianists William Vann and Edward Rushton.

The recital has a certain quirkiness to it, as the centrepiece is Holloway's 27 minute waltz-homage to Wagner's Parsifal written for two pianos, so that the disc is not quite a song recital and not quite a piano recital, and the recital is bookended by a pair of songs for vocal quartet and piano. But though the genre of the pieces may not be obvious, Holloway's music certainly intrigues and entrances as he combines lyricism with modernism, passion with humour and a delightful knowingness on music of the past.

We start with The Zodiac Song, written for four singers and piano in 2017 as a sort of follow-up to Holloway's Shelly setting The Food of Love which was written for the same forces in 1996, and which concludes the disc. Here the four singers are accompanied by William Vann in a piece which places short solos and duets against a constantly moving backdrop in the piano. It is quite varied, perky at times and almost tuneful in an interesting way.


Three Songs to poems by Edmund Waller were written in 2007 and are here performed by Kate Symonds-Joy and Edward Rushton. The first songis a rather lilting piece, almost a waltz, whilst the second has a sinuous solo line with the piano weaving round, it whilst the third continues the mood in calmer vein. Though Holloway writes melodically, the music is quite complex in terms of harmonies and textures.

A Medley of Nursery Rhymes and Conundrums has its origin in a work for soprano and wind ensemble written in 1977, later on Holloway took two items from this in a version for voice and piano, and added some new material in 1986. Here performed by Symonds-Joy and Rushton, the result is a sequence of charming texts which Holloway treats with great seriousness whilst brining in popular hints so the we open with the suggestion of a waltz, and there are folk-ish moments and suggestions of popular music, whilst the final song has a big piano solo. Throughout Kate Symonds-Joy is delightfully characterful, though I wanted her to make more of the words and had to rather resort to the printed texts at times.

As a young man Holloway was a great admirer of the French composers' send-ups of Wagnerism, with Faure and Messager's Souvenirs de Bayreuth and Charbier's Souvenirs de Munich. His own essay in the genre had to wait for technique to catch up on intention, so here from 1984 are Souvenirs de Montsalvat played by William Vann and Edward Rushton, six waltzes with a solemn prelude to start and an intermezzo part of the way through. Most have a generic titles, 'Sin, Guilt & Suffering' or 'Parsifal & Herzeleide', but 'Kundry, Kiss, Mystic Marriage' has a detailed programme with stage directions culminating in Kundry and Parsifal's marriage! The result has a delightful lightness, and is enjoyable on a number of levels both with and without the knowledge of Wagner's original, but I have to confess that at 27 minutes I thought the work was a little too long for its own good.

The Lovers' Well is a setting from 1981 of a sequence of poems by Geoffrey Grigson. The original poetic cycle was called The Pentecost Castle, and Holloway points out that the Parsifal references in the texts make the piece a dark companion to Souvenirs of Monsalvat, though in fact Holloway did not set Grigson's entire cycle, missing out the more overtly religious poems. It is here performed by Simon Wallfisch and  Edward Rushton. A continuous cycle of short songs played without a break, mysterious and evocative with a clear narrative in the lyrical vocal line and interesting twists of harmony. It is rather powerful, and Holloway brilliantly melds his music with the aphoristic style of Grigson's poetry. Wallfisch and Rushton give a powerful performance, though I felt that the recording did not sufficiently catch Wallfisch's words, and again I had to resort to the printed texts. Voice and piano are very much equal partners in this enterprise, with Rushton giving us some passionately brilliant moments in Holloway's long piano interludes.

The final work on the disc is The Food of Love, Holloway's 1996 setting of Shelly for vocal quartet and piano, and beautifully lyrical piece which makes a magical ending to an intriguing recital.

Robin Holloway (born 1943) - The Zodiac Song (2017) [5:47]
Robin Holloway - Three Songs to poems by Edmund Waller (2007) [8:20]
Robin Holloway - A Medley of Nursery Rhymes and Conundrums (1986) [12.53]
Robin Holloway - Souvenirs de Monsalvat (1984) [27:14]
Robin Holloway - The Lovers' Well (1981) [16:07]
Robin Holloway - The Food of Love (1996) [4:04}
Clare Lloyd-Griffiths (soprano)
Kate Symonds-Joy (mezzo-soprano)
James Robinson (tenor)
Simon Wallfisch (baritone)
Edward Rushton (piano)
William Vann (piano)
Recorded 8 & 9 July 2018, Potton Hall, Saxmundham, Suffolk
DELPHIAN DCD34216 1CD [74:30]

Available from Amazon.

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