Tuesday 1 April 2014

Songs of Love and War

Songs of Love and War - Champs Hill Records  CHRCD074
Songs of Love and War: The London Quartet - Cantabile, Malcolm Martineau: Champs Hill Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on April 1 2014
Star rating: 4.0

English part-songs, contemporary arrangements from all male vocal ensemble

This new disc on the Champs Hill Records label has a title which nods in the direction of Monteverdi's madrigals. In fact it is an eclectic programme centred round the English part song, with a heavy admixture of lighter arrangements. This mixture is not unexpected when you understand that performers are the all male vocal ensemble, The London Quartet, also known as Cantabile, a group with a long and interesting pedigree in mixing styles, composers and genres. On this disc they are joined by pianist Malcolm Martineau, and we have a selection of works by Poulenc, Elgar, Carlos Jobin, Quilter, RL Pearsall, RVW, Barnby, Bahler, Brassens, Lee, Randy Newman, Clarke, Haydn and Bridge.

The London Quartet consists of Michael Steffan (baritone), Richard Bryan (counter-tenor), Mark Fleming (tenor) and Steven Brooks (tenor). The group was founded, as Cantabile, in the 1980's and their back catalogue includes a widely varying mix of work ranging from early French chanson to a Tim Rice and Stephen Oliver musical and other works specially written for them by Stephen Oliver.

The theme of the disc mixes songs on love and on war, ranging freely in both subjects and composers. They start with an arrangement of Poulenc's Priez pour paix (all arrangements on the disc, except one, are by the performers themselves). Poulenc's setting of the ballade by Charles d'Orleans was written just after the signing of the Munich Agreement and the tone of the words (written during Charles d'Orleans long captivity in England) chimes in well with the contemporary context. The group performs the song rather straight, accompanied by Martineau's piano, with expressive results.

Elgar's unaccompanied part-song As Torrents in Summer comes from his oratorio King Olaf. Though it works with just four voices, I have to confess to preferring it performed by a larger ensemble and the soprano line seems to push counter-tenor Richard Bryan's voice uncomfortably at times.

The name of sixteenth century French composer Thoinot Arbeau might not be well known, but the music of his Pavane is, thanks to Peter Warlock's arrangement of it in his Capriol Suite. Here the London Quartet gives us a characterful arrangement of the original. This is followed by another piece of re-use, as Chopin's Prelude No. 4 in E minor morphs into Carlos Jobim's Insensatez. The quartet's arrangement gives us three versions, a wordless evocation of Chopin's original, and then in Spanish and in English.

Roger Quilter's slightly sentimental setting of Edmund Waller, Go lovely rose dates from 1922. The group perform it in their own arrangement for vocal quartet and piano, mixing in elements of part-song and close harmony in an effective and attractive manner. A similar technique is used for Poulenc's Bleuet, a setting of Apollinaire written in 1939 after Hitler's invasion of Poland. But here the smooth harmonisation and horizontal part writing do not mix well with Poulenc's original. Though the arrangement works well enough, I kept noticing how different the vocal writing was to Poulenc's own choral pieces with their more disjoint harmonies and jagged part writing.

RL Pearsall's part song There is a Paradise on Earth sets a text by Heinrich Christoph Holty. The group sing it with care, with a nice attention to the words but a with the Elgar I noticed the edgy tone which crept into Bryan's counter-tenor. I have to confess that I had mixed feelings about their arrangement of RVW's Silent Noon for vocal ensemble and piano. The arrangement is well enough, and the performance is lovely, but it left me wondering why tinker with something which works well already. They follow this with another English part-song, by Jospeh Barnby. Whereas RL Pearsall is known for his popular arrangement of In Dulci Jubilo, Barnby is hardly known at all. His part-song setting Tennyson's Sweet and Low was published in 1863. It is a lovely example of the English part-song genre, here given a performance with a nice balance and good words.

Tom Bahler's name might not be known, but his song She's Out of My Life was a hit for Michael Jackson. Here it receives a lovely bluesy close-harmony arrangement with a fine high tenor solo. French singer-songwriter's THe War of '14-'18 draws on his experiences of forced labour in Germany in the Second World War. The quartet's arrangement, with piano, rather brings out the jollity of the piece and mutes its underlying edge.

In the Summer of his Years was the response of song-writer David Lee to the assassination of President Kennedy. Lee had success with songs such as Kinky Boots (recorded by Diana Rigg and Steed?), and Goodness Gracious me (written for Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren). In the Summer of his Years was written for That Was The Week That Was and performed live by Millicent Martin. The quartet sing it a cappella, in a very powerful and effective performance. Randy Newman's When she loved me could be read as a fairly standard love-song ballad, but in fact the song was written for the film Toy Story 2, to be sung by the cowgirl Jessie who recalls how her owner loses interest in her. Here, with a piano accompaniment and a great counter-tenor solo line, the song works very well.

Guy Turner's arrangement of the folk-song O Waly Waly is lovely, simple and effective it shows off the song well and does not try too hard. Only You was a hit for Vince Clarke in 1982, here it receives a delightful doo-wop arrangement that cannot fail to bring a smile to your face.

It is however, a bit of a lurch to Haydn's She never told her love, with its lovely piano part in the capable hands of Malcolm Martineau. Once you get over the stylistic jolt, the arrangement for voices and piano is indeed very effective. Frank Bridge's setting of Walt Whitman, The Last Invocation was also originally for solo voice and piano. In its new guise for vocal quartet and piano the results are effective enough, with the group exploiting both the song's harmonies but also the use of tutti unisons.

They finish with another RL Pearsall part-song, Blumenlied. A lovely piece, but again I did rather feel that the counter-tenor's voice was pushed a bit too far.

The CD booklet includes an extensive article on the songs, though slightly frustratingly they are mentionned in a different order to that in which they are performed, along with full texts and translations.

The ensemble give performances which blend admirably, have fine attention to detail and show a good feel for the words. Not everyone will appreciate their rather varied mix of material, and you can't help feeling that some of the lighter items come off best. But it is the mix which makes this disc and you can't help but enjoy it.

Francis Poulenc (1899 1963) - Priez pour Paix [2.39]
Edward Elgar (1857 - 1934) - As Torrents in Summer [1.58]
Thoinot Arbeau (1519 - 1595) - Pavane [4.28]
Frederic Chopin (1810 - 1849) / Antonio Carlos Jobin (1927 - 1994) - Prelude in E minor / Insensatex [3.51]
Roger Quilter (1877 - 1953) - Go, lovely Rose [2.52]
Francis Poulenc (1899 - 1963) - Bleuet [3.06]
Robert Lucas Pearsall (1795 - 1856) - There is a Paradise on Earth [3.02]
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 - 1958) - Silent Noon [3.58]
Joseph Barnby (1838 - 1896) - Sweet and Low [2.04]
Tom Bahler (born 1943) - She's out of my life [3.17]
Georges Brassens (1921 - 1981) - The War of '14 - '18 [2.32]
David Lee (born 1959) - In the Summer of his Years [2.18]
Randy Newman (born 1943) - When she loved me [3.35]
Traditional, arr. Guy Turner (born 1955) - O Waly, Waly [3.45]
Vince Clarke (born 1960) - Only You [3.09]
Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809) - She never told her Love [3.18]
Frank Bridge (1879 - 1941) - The Last Invocation [3.08]
Robert Lucas Pearsall (1759 - 1856) - Blumenlied [2.57]
Cantabile - The London Quartet
Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded 2-3, 30 November 2011, 28 August 2013, in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex

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