Thursday 19 September 2013

Fluent Charm: I'll Sing Thee Songs

I'll Sing Thee Songs - Greg Tassell and Gary Branch: FPCD005
The English song of the late 18th and 19th centuries is still a somewhat neglected genre. This new disc from Greg Tassell and Gary Branch has one or two songs that will be familiar, but many that are not and deserve to be heard more often. The composers Arthur Sullivan, Arthur Somervell, Charles Dibdin, Thomas Moore, Henry Bishop, Frederick Clay, Michael Balfe, Charles V. Stanford and Edward Elgar are not all great names but their songs, mostly within the ballad tradition, have a charm and immediacy. Their character is enhanced on this disc by the use of a selection of 19th century pianos from Finchcocks, the keyboard museum in Kent.

It is Finchcocks which is a linking presence throughout the recording. Tassell originally worked at Finchcocks getting to know the tenor John Kerr who performed English songs for visitors to the museum and Tassell won the inaugural John Kerr Award for Early English Song in 2006. Gary Branch works at Finchcocks as Educational Co-ordinator and the two are now both trustees of the John Kerr Award for Early English Song.

The disc opens with Arthur Sullivan's O Swallow, Swallow, a late song setting Tennyson which was premiered in 1900 by Clara Butt's husband, Kennerly Rumford. It is a rather wordy piece, but Sullivan brings things to a nice climax. Branch accompanies Tassell on an 1866 Erard of London grand piano, a very modern instrument for its date with a sweet, brilliant tone.

Arthur Somervell's Sweet Kate was one of his New Old Songs published in 1927 and is a reworking of a song by Robert Jones (1577 - 1617). Again we hear the 1866 Erard, which gives a lovely subtle sound. Somervell's song is a charmer, with some delightful laughing passages nicely caught by Tassell.

Tassell has an ideal voice for this repertoire, lyric by also sweetly vibrant with a firm sense of line. And the various pianos played by Branch bring a surprising amount of colour and richness to the accompaniment.

Charles Dibdin's Jolly Dick the Lamplighter takes us back to the earlier age of English song. Dibdin is best known for Tom Bowling, partly because it is included in Henry Wood's Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Dibdin wrote songs extensively, along with multifarious other activities. All the Dibdin songs on the disc are accompanied on an 1801 Broadwood grand (you only have to hear the piano and you think of Haydn and his canzonets). Dibdin's song has great charm and character. His song The Token has great lyrical and melodic appeal, though this seems at odds with the gorier details of the story.

The Bohemian composer Dussek was in London from 1798 to 1799, his piano solo Rondo on the them of 'Oh dear, what can the matter be' enables Branch to display some neat fingerwork and demonstrate the nicely mellow tones of the 1801 Broadwood.

Thomas Moore is best known for his Irish Melodies. Fill the Bumper Fair is a lively drinking song. Strophic with little variation, there are perhaps too many verses. Henry Bishop's Home Sweet Home is more familiar ground. Originally form his opera Clari or the Maid of Milan, first performed at Covent Garden in 1823. Tassell gives it a nicely shaped and subtle performance.

A further piano solo follows, The Bird Waltz, by the little known Francis Panormo, an Italian composer who was eventually based in London.

Next comes another pair of Dibdin songs, Ben Backstay and Tom Touch. The first is a sentimental lyrical ballad, again with a melody rather at odds with the gory bits of the story. The second is another sea ballad; despite the delights of Tassell and Branch's performance, I did think there were too many verses.

For Frederick Clay's I'll sing thee songs of Araby we move to an 1858 Broadwood piano. This is a square piano which was rented from Broadwood by Queen Victoria for 30 years. Clay was the sun of the MP for Hull and was born in Paris; He wrote mainly for the stage. I'll sing thee songs of Araby is a somewhat sentimental ballad which rises to dramatic heights at the end.

Balfe's setting of Tennyson's Come into the garden Maude is well known, but Balfe makes a complete hash of the poetry by forcing it to fit his melodic ideas. The song was written in 1857 for the tenor Sims Reeves. Tassell gives it a subtle and rather moving performing, leading to a nicely dramatic end. This, and the Stanford song which follows, are played on the 1866 Erard.

Stanford's La belle dame sans merci sets a poem by Keats. It is an early work, written in 1877 and is more extended and more developed than many songs on this disc. More ambitious too, but it does go on for a little too long and is only redeemed by the fine ending. Tassell and Branch make a good case for the song.

More Sullivan follows,this time a piano solo Day Dreams No. 2 on the 1858 Broadwood.

Next comes a group of Elgar songs. Dry those fair, those crystal eyes was first performed the same year as Enigma Variations but it hardly comes into the same category. It a very much a parlour ballad, but clearly with Elgarian touches and some lovely colours in the piano (the 1858 Broadwood). We move to the 1866 Erard for Elgar's Three Songs, Op 16, which were written in 1897.

The Shepherd's Song is again a parlour ballad, but one with a captivating tune and some lovely details. Through the Long Days is a lyrical song, complex and rather thoughtful. But Rondel  opens rather in ballad mode, though Elgar develops the song somewhat later on.

The Elgar songs form a fascinating conclusion to the recital, bringing us almost back to the 20th century and showing Elgar sitting between two worlds, the English ballad and the art song.

As a code we have two final Dibdin songs. Tom Bowling is taken at quite a steady pace but receives a firmly vibrant performance. The Jolly Waterman makes a jolly conclusion.

Throughout Tassell sings with admirable diction so that, though there are no song texts printed in the CD booklet, this does not matter as his performance is highly communicative. Singing with admirably flexible tones, and finely accompanied by Branch, you could not imagine these songs having better advocates.

They are not great songs, but they are undeservedly neglected. The word that I constantly wanted to use to describe most of them was charm. These are songs of great charm in performances which intelligently enhance that. Tassell and Branch have put together a recital which managed to be both interesting and illuminating, in performances which show the songs at their best.

Arthur Sullivan (1842 - 1900) - O Swallow, Swallow [2.53]
Arthur Somervell (1863 - 1937) - Sweet Kate [1.35]
Charles Dibdin (1763 - 1826) - Jolly Dick the Lamplighter [2.18]
Charles Dibdin (1763 - 1826) - The Token [5.16]
Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760 - 1812) - Rondo on the theme of 'Oh dear, what can the matter be' [5.02]
Thomas Moore - Fill the Bumper Fair [2.30]
Henry Bishop (1786 - 1855) - Home! Sweet Home! [2.59]
Francis Panormo (1764 - 1844) - The Bird Waltz [2.13]
Charles Dibdin (1763 - 1826) - Ben Backstay [4.17]
Charles Dibdin (1763 - 1826) - Tom Tough [4.02]
Frederick Clay (1840) - I'll sing thee songs of Araby  [3.05]
Michael W Balfe (1808 - 1870) - Come into the garden Maude [4.03]
Charles V Stanford (1852 - 1924) - La belle dame sans merci [6.00]
Arthur Sullivan (1842 - 1900) - Daydreams no. 2 [2.31]
Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934) - Dry those fair, those crystal eyes [2.08]
Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934) - Three Songs, Op. 16 [8.17]
Charles Dibdin (1763 - 1826) - Tom Bowling [4.32]
Charles Dibdin (1763 - 1826) - The Jolly Young Waterman [2.56]
Greg Tassell (tenor)
Gary Branch (piano)

Recorded at Finchcocks


Currently the discs are only available from Greg, if you contact him by email  or phone him on 07983 581590 he will sell them for £10 plus postage and packaging.

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