Saturday 28 February 2015

Love's Old Sweet Song - Kathryn Rudge and James Baillieu

Edward Elgar, Ivor Gurney, Frank Bridge, Roger Quilter, William Denis Browne, Eric Coates, James Lynam Molloy, Ivor Novello, Haydn Wood; Kathryn Rudge, James Baillieu; Champs Hill Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 26 2015
Star rating: 4.0

A whole range of 20th century English song from Novello to Gurney in a finely crafted debut

This debut disc, on the Champs Hill Records label, from mezzo-soprano Kathryn Rudge, accompanied by James Baillieu, is a selection of English songs from the first 50 years of the 20th century (with the exception of Britten's arrangement of The Salley Gardens). Where Rudge and Baillieu's selection differs from most other recitals on CD is that they have cast their net across a wide variety of composers so that songs by Edward Elgar, Ivor Gurney and Frank Bridge sit alongside those by Roger Quilter, William Denis Browne, Eric Coates, James Lynam Molloy, Ivor Novello and Haydn Wood. You may not immediately recognise all the names in that list, but will with recognise the songs which include Love's Old Sweet Song and Roses of Picardy.

A number of the songs on the disc come into the category of light music though this distinction was less well defined during the first part of the 20th century. What the songs have in common is that they are all well crafted. Ivor Novello's songs, for instance, have seen something of a revival in recent years owing to this very craftsmanship. It is a fascinating experience to listen to the whole programme with the music of Ivor Gurney, Eric Coates, Roger Quilter, Haydn Wood and Ivor Novello side by side. What becomes immediately apparent are the commonalities. Yes, the melodies in some items are more popular sounding and the structure of the songs can be less sophisticated. But all the songs have a similar use of melody as the essential building block.

Roger Quilter's Seven Elizabethan Lyrics were new to me. They were written for the tenor Gervase Elwes, who premiered in them in 1908. The cycle sets lyrics from the Elizabethan period and very much occupies the middle ground between Bridge and Gurney on one hand, and Ivor Novello and Haydn Wood on the other.

Another major tenor of the period, Steuart Wilson, was involved in the first performance of William Denis Browne's To Gratiana Dancing and Singing. Browne is one of the talents cut short by World War One and another of the themes running through the disc is World War One and its effects on composers like Browne and Gurney who were participants. Ivor Gurney's songs might seem strange in this context, but the programme highlights the musical background of the period. Another fascinating link is that the author of the texts to Haydn Wood's Bird Songs at Eventide and Brown Bird Singing is Rodney Richard Bennett the father of the composer Richard Rodney Bennett.

I first heard Haydn Wood's Brown Bird Singing sung by the great Wagnerian soprano Rita Hunter in a concert which also included the recognition scene from Richard Strauss's Elektra. This highlights another aspect of Rudge and Baillieu's programme, the continuation of late flowering lyricism in new music used in recitals during the 20th century by singers needing songs suiting their voices. Frank Bridge's Love went a-riding (the third of his Mary Coleridge Settings) features on Christine Brewer's disc Echoes of Nightingales which explores the more popular songs (final set and encore items) used in recitals by great Wagnerian sopranos.

There is an aspect of English music which lived in a time-warp, ignoring the developments of European music. Frank Bridge was one of the few composers influenced by the European mainstream. His Mary Coleridge Settings date from the years 1914-1917, a period when he became disillusioned with the events of the war (he was a pacifist). It was only after this that his style changed radically to reflect the influence of European modernism.

The disc would not work if the performances were not so fine. Kathryn Rudge has a lovely warm yet focussed mezzo-soprano voice and she sings with a combination of line and superb diction. She is well supported by James Baillieu and the pair treat each song with the same care and sense of seriousness. So that the Ivor Novello is as well done as the Ivor Gurney. In many ways this is quite a daring disc. I can think of few programmes which combine music by Ivor Gurney, Frank Bridge, Ivor Novello and Haydn Wood.
Highly recommended.

Eric Coates - Bird songs at eventide [03:07]
Alan Murray - I'll walk beside you [02:49]
James Molloy Lynam - Love's old sweet song [03:51]
Ivor Novello - We'll gather lilacs [03:55]
William Denis Browne - To Gratiana dancing and singing [04:13]
Roger Quilter - Seven Elizabethan Lyrics Op.12
Edward Elgar - Pleading [03:35]
Ivor Gurney - Severn Meadows [02:00]
Ivor Gurney - By a bierside [05:01]
Eric Coates - I heard you singing [03:03]
Haydn Wood - Roses of Picardy [04:15]
Ivor Novello - My life belongs to you [03:48]
Edward Elgar - In Moonlight [03:22]
Roger Quilter - Love's Philosophy [01:30]
Haydn Wood - Brown Bird singing [03:11]
Edward Elgar - Speak Music! [03:04]
Frank Bridge - Mary Coleridge settings
Benjamin Britten - Last rose of summer [04:17]
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
James Baillieu (piano)
Recorded 26-29 May 2014 Music Room, Champs Hill
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