Wednesday 3 April 2013

Songs of the Sea, Songs of Travel - Anthony Michaels-Moore

Anthony Michaels-Moore. Michael Pollock: Stanford - Songs of the Sea, Vaughan Williams - Songs of Travel, Rosenblatt Recitals / Opus Arte OACD9014 D
Anthony Michaels-Moore and Michael Pollock's disc of songs by Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Ralph Vaughan Williams is from the first batch of discs from the new partnership between Rosenblatt Recitals and Opus Arte. Michaels-Moore for Rosenblatt Recitals at St John's Smith Square in 2007, and all the songs on this disc were recorded at St. John's in January 2008. The disc traverses English song from the 1870's through to 1925 via the songs of Stanford and his pupil RVW. Both Stanford's Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet and RVW's Songs of Travel can be underestimated, with the songs being richer than they might appear on the surface.

The recording catches Michaels-Moore's voice well, displaying a good firm baritone, with a strongly focused core and only a hint of extra vibrato on the longer notes. Histrionically he catches the mood of Stanford's songs just right. His open, direct delivery also revealing the subtler undercurrents in the songs. Stanford's Songs of the Sea were written in 1904 for the Leeds Festival, for baritone, chorus and orchestra. Michaels-Moore and Pollock use Stanford's version for voice and piano from the vocal score, which means that we lose out on Stanford's superb orchestration, but gain in subtlety of scale.

Drake's Drum sees Michaels-Moore capturing the histrionic feel of the song without being too imperially jingoistic. Stanford had met the poet Henry Newbolt after the premier of Stanford's The Revenge and the two had got on well. Newbolt's poems capture something of the same spirit as Rudyard Kipling's Barrack Room Ballads. By 1904, Stanford's always rather conservative musical style must have seemed old fashioned. But Newbolt's words are backward-looking, evoking the  joys of Britain's sea-faring exploits under sail, and Stanford's musical style suits them well.

I am not sure that Michaels-Moore and Pollock quite capture the mystical element which is present in Drake's Drum, but their performance of Outward Bound is beautifully lyrical, and reveals the complexity of the song. And the recording captures the spirit of Michaels-Moore's voice well. 

Devon, O Devon is dramatic and fast with Michaels-Moore coping with lots of words and some great piano work from Drake. In the slower Homeward Bound though the performance is nicely subtle and rather contemplative, I have to confess that I did rather miss the orchestra. There are lots of words again in The 'Old Superb' and at times the song comes alarmingly close to one of Gilbert and Sullivan's patter songs. But Michaels-Moore brings conviction and gravitas, taking the song entirely seriously with bluff conviction.

Stanford's construction of the song-cycle ensure that interest does not wane, with each song being nicely contrasted, making a satisfying whole. Michaels-Moore and Pollock balance bluff jingoism with more thoughtful moments.

La Belle Dame sans merci is a lot earlier, Stanford's setting of John Keats' poem dates from 1877. In its strophic ballad structure with variations, Stanford is harking back to Schubert and Loewe. But his setting does not quite capture the erotic exoticism of Keats' text. The first half feels rather well-made and solid, though Michaels-Moore and Pollock make a good case for the song. But then in the final verses Stanford's setting seems to catch fire, and Michaels-Moore is finely histrionic.

Songs of the Fleet, setting more of Newbolt's poetry, dates from 1910 six years after Songs of the Sea. Essentially the cycle is more of the same. Sailing at Dawn though, has rather more complex and interesting undercurrents to the harmony, avoiding the obviously bluff and hearty that the poem might have led us to expect. Michaels-Moore is a good advocate, capturing the melancholic nostalgic vein in the poetry and music.

The Song of the Sou'Wester is quite simply a wonderful depiction of a Sou'Wester gale, with a vividly infectious performance from Michaels-Moore and Pollock. The selection from Songs of the Fleet concludes with The Little Admiral, which is rather wordy but Michaels-Moore succeeds in making it invigoratingly rousing. Michaels-Moore and Pollock make good advocates for Stanford's songs, particularly in these piano version, bringing out the complex subtlety of the pieces.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' Linden Lea and Blackmwore by Stour both date from 1901, before Stanford's Songs of the Sea. They show how RVW had taken Stanford's influence but combined it with folk-song to crated something more complex and perhaps richer. Both poems set the Dorset poet William Barnes, and show RVW evoking folk song rather than using it directly. Blackmwore by Stour is written in dialect, though Michaels-Moore sings it in plain English. Linden Lea show Michaels-Moore bring a fine shape to the phrases and colouring the words. Blackmwore by Stour sees him rather relishing the song's saucy subject matter, creating great delight.

RVW's Three Poems by Walt Whitman date from 1925. Whitman was a poet to whom RVW would return throughout his life. Here, he sets three poems which mine the mystical vision common to a lot of RVW's mature work. Nocturne is a wonderful evocation of the complexities of Whitman's poem. This is real, mature RVW complex with a deep vein of mysticism. A Clear Midnight is similar with its long contemplative lines and I did wonder whether Michaels-Moore sounded a little strained at time. I'm not sure that he captures the full, complex mystical intensely of these songs. The final one, Joy, Shipmate Joy is very short and far closer to Stanford in mood.

RVW's setting of Robert Louis Stevenson's Songs of Travel dates from 1910-1904. The cycle has a slightly complex history; it was published in two volumes, not in RVW's order and omitting Whither must I wander. Then on RVW's death, the manuscript of the final song I have trod the upward and downward slope was found amongst his papers. Like Stanford's songs, the complexity of these can also be overlooked and the songs' essential core missed.

Michaels-Moore's delivery of The Vagabond is open-hearted and confident, his involving delivery pitching the song just right. Michaels-Moore's vibrato rather develops on the longer notes, but not in an intrusive way.

Pollock provides a lovely rippling piano accompaniment in Let Beauty Awake with Michaels-Moore displaying a lovely lyrical line with a nice subtlety at the end. And in The Roadside Fire they capture the dream-like mystic quality of the piece.

Youth and Love is by turns thoughtful and passionate, and I loved the way Michaels-Moore lightens his voice at the end of each verse. In Dreams is intense, with its rather dramatic melody and you can detect more continental harmonic influences at work here.

Michaels-Moore and Pollock's performance of The Infinite Shining Heavens is simply lovely, perfect in tone. Followed by the intense longing and nostalgia of Whither must I wander with Michaels-Moore displaying lovely burnished vocal tone. The thoughtful lyrical beauty of Bright is the Ring of Words leads to the wonderful radiance of I have trod the upward and downward slope.

Both the Stanford songs and the RVW have been recorded by fine artists. Both Gerald Finley and Benjamin Luxon have recorded Songs of the Sea in their orchestral guise, and Stephen Varcoe included Songs of the Sea in its piano version on his set of Stanford songs on Chandos.

Here Michaels-Moore and Pollock pair Stanford with his pupil RVW, both writing song cycles at roughly the same time and both coming different conclusions. But Stanford and RVW both have a more complex side which Michaels-Moore and Pollock bring out and balance with the bluffer heartiness. Lovers of Michaels-Moore's live performances will welcome this disc, but it is also a highly satisfying recital in its own right.

Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) - Songs of the Sea (1904) [16.16]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) - La Belle Dame sans Merci (1877) [5.33]
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852 - 1924) - Songs of the Fleet (excerpts) (1910) [11.20]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1972 - 1958) - Linden Lea (1901) [2.38]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1972 - 1958) - Blackmwore by the Stour (1901) [2.37]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1972 - 1958) - Three Poems by Walt Whitman (1925) [8.00]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1972 - 1958) - Songs of Travel (1901 - 1904) [24.28]
Anthony Michaels-Moore (baritone)
Michael Pollock (piano)
Recorded 4-5 January 2008, St John's Smith Square, London
OPUS ARTE OACD9014 D 1CD [70.19]

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