Sunday 19 March 2017

Richly vibrant & strongly characterful: songs by Buxton Orr from Nicky Spence & Iain Burnside

Buxton Orr - Songs
Buxton Orr songs; Nicky Spence, Iain Burnside, Jordan Black, Nikita Naumov, members of the Edinburgh Quartet
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 8 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Characterful performances of a clutch of new discoveries, in Buxton Orr's distinctive voice

You may not know the name Buxton Orr, but his music might be familiar as he wrote a number of film scores including that for the 1959 film Suddenly Last Summer with Elizabeth Taylor. On this new disc from Delphian we are treated to a selection of the Glasgow-born composer's songs from the period 1962 to 1986. Tenor Nicky Spence is joined by pianist Iain Burnside, clarinettist Jordan Black, double-bass player Nikita Naumov and members of the Edinburgh Quartet (Tristan Gurney, Gordon Bragg, Mark Bailey), to perform The Painter's Mistress, Canzona, The Ballad of Mr & Mrs Discobbolos, Ten Types of Hospital Visitor and Songs of Childhood. The language of the poems which Orr set varying from the classic English of James Elroy Flecker, through the comic with of Edward Lear and Charles Causley, to a variety of Scots texts from the more traditional to William Dunbar, William Soutar and King James I of Scotland.

The Painter's Mistress was written in 1974 using a poem by James Elroy Flecker describing the thoughts of the painter's mistress as she poses for the artists. It starts rather dramatically in media res with her thoughts 'And still you paint, and still I stand / White and erect, the classic pose', creating something rather intriguing to which Orr adds rather darker hints in the piano. The form is almost a lyrical recitative with Nicky Spence fully alive to the words.

Orr's Canzona is a song cycle for voice, clarinet and string trio (violin, viola and cello). It is his longest song cycle, and the combination of the relatively unusual scoring and fact that the poems are all in Scots hints at why the piece is not better known. 'Lament for Graham' sets text by 15th century minstrel Blind Harry lamenting John de Graham, one of William Wallace's companions, combined with William Dunbar's poem Of Life. Orr combines rather perky neo-classical drama of clarinet and strings with more lyrical, serious recitative in the voice, the two elements interacting until the dramatic climax. As with a number of the Scots language songs on the disc, Spence's performance is highly communicative (he is a Scot himself) but many will need to follow with the printed words.

The second movement set a poem attributed to King James I of Scotland. A solo clarinet leads to music which is slow, intimate and gentle, with a certain angularity to it too. Tibbie Fowler, the last movement, sets a traditional text and is lighter in tone. A complete delight, it reminds me of Spence's performance of The Wee Cooper of Fife, which I have heard him perform live, though Orr integrates comments from the strings and the piece gradually develops in complexity.

Buxton Orr was a pupil of Benjamin Frankel, and like Frankel, developed a very personal technique based on serialism The songs on the disc, though often chromatic and angular, are never serial but they show a composer with a very distinctive voice.

The Ballad of Mr & Mrs Discobbolos for voice and piano, from 1970, is a setting of Edward Lear written originally for voice and guitar (for William Brown and John Williams). Whilst Orr's clearly relished Lear's words, there is nothing specifically comic about the song, instead Orr brings out the very distinct vein of anxiety which runs through the works, with Orr adding some complex harmonies. And the bizarre ending is wonderfully down-beat.

Ten Types of Hospital Visitor dates from 1986, the most recent music on the disc. The rather witty text is by the Cornish poet Charles Causely, set for the distinctive combination of voice and double-bass. Slight jazz-ish hints in the bass writing perhaps make sense when you learn that Orr's best-known pupil was Barry Guy who is known as a jazz double bassist (as well as being a composer). The result is surprisingly characterful with a superb range of colour from the double bass. Orr's setting of the text is very free and the dry wit of the words comes over well. Spence and Naumov developed a strong partnership with the double bass commenting and interrupting rather than accompanying, There is a dark vein running through the cycle which culminates in the two-line final poem 'The tenth visitor / is not usually named'.

The final group on the disc is the earliest, Songs of Childhood from 1962 and was commissioned by the Saltire Society (an organisation aimed at promoting the 'understanding of the culture and heritage of Scotland'). The songs set a variety of Scots poets, William Soutar, Albert D Mackie, William Landles, Helen B Cruickshank, Mary Campbell Smith, all with texts in strongly characterful language. Aince upon a day is perky and folk-ish, in a performance full of charm from Spence and Burnside. Auld Mrs Murdy is slower, with Spence clearly relishing the words, eg. 'Whiles yin midges, tries her ither fit, / Whiles anither crosses his legs for a bit, / Or wipes at his nose or blipes at his e'en, / Then goves at the fishwife and her preen'.

One man band has a lovely evocation of the one-man band in question in the piano. Munebrunt is far less folk-ish and has an arrangement where the influence of Britten is rather felt. Shy Georgie is again Britten-ish, but rather haunting in a gently evocative performance from Spence and Burnside. The Boy in Train is full of train effects and is a complete delight in its evocation of the little boy thinking about the train, his tea and all sort of other thing. It was this song, which transported Spence to his own childhood in the 1980s, that led him to contact Orr's widow and find a treasure trove of unrecorded works for voice.

This is an important disc, all the songs except for the Lear setting, are receiving their first recordings and we must be grateful to Nicky Spence and Delphian for bringing this rich music to life. But this is not dutiful excursion into the archive but a series of richly vibrant songs in strongly characterful and subtle performances from Spence, Burnside and the other musicians. Highly recommended.

Buxton Orr (1924-1997) - The Painter's Misterss [5.25]
Buxton Orr - Canzona [22.32]
Buxton Orr - The Ballad of Mr & Mrs Discobbolos [11.18]
Buxton Orr - Ten Types of Hospital Visitor [20.50]
Buxton Orr - Songs Childhood [17.27]
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Iain Burnside (piano)
Jordan Black (clarinet)
Nikita Naumov (double bass)
Members of the Edinburgh Quartet (Tristan Gurney, Gordon Bragg, Mark Bailey)
Recorded 18-22 April 2016, at CREAR, Argyll.
DELPHIAN DCD34175 1CD [72.36]
Available from Amazon.

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