Friday 10 August 2018

Calen-O: songs from the North of Ireland

Calen-O - Carolyn Dobbin - Delphian
Joan Trimble, Hamilton Harty, Howard Ferguson, Charles Wood; Carolyn Dobbin, Iain Burnside; DELPHIAN Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 29 July 2018 Star rating: 4.5 (★★★★½)
Mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin in an attractive recital of songs by composers from her native Northern Ireland

Listening to this on Delphian disc blind, it would be fatally easy to simply classify the music as English song, but by bringing this particular group of 20th century composers (some born pre-1900) together, mezzo-soprano Carolyn Dobbin highlights the particularity of music by composers coming from Northern Ireland. Many were English trained, the Royal College of Music crops up in their CVs, but they use Irish words and, sometimes, Irish tunes, to create a very particular feel. So here, accompanied by pianist Iain Burnside, Carolyn Dobbin sings songs by Joan Trimble, Hamilton Harty, Howard Ferguson and Charles Wood. 

Some of the composers are not well known, and others are better known for other things (Hamilton Harty was the conductor of the Halle, and CHarles Wood is known for his Anglican Church music), but all have something to contribute in the song repertoire. Evidently, collecting songs by composers from the North of Ireland is a passion of Dobbin's, and she has plenty more for us to look forward to.

We start with Joan Trimble, from Enniskillen she studied at the Royal College of Music and taught at the Royal Academy of Music. Here we have Green Rain, Girl's Song and My grief on the sea, this latter her first published song, it sets and English translation of an Irish poem. These are elegant, lyrical songs, folk-influenced and very much in the tradition of RVW's songs except with an Irish melancholy lilt to them  As with most of the songs on the disc, the accompaniments are rather more than just simple support for the vocal line and we are very much in art-song territory.

Hamilton Harty's music has become better known, and the fact that he was married to a singer (soprano Agnes Nicholls) probably contributed to his creating a body of songs. Harty tended to set contemporary Irish poets, and whilst he made his name in London he was clearly aware of his Irish heritage, and some of his orchestral music uses Thomas Moore's influential Irish Melodies. His songs here are quite varied, and I was struck by the way his accompaniment seems to evoke the harp in Scythe Song and Flame in the skies. These don't use folk-songs, but the lively The Fiddler of Dooney is definitely in the folk idiom. Other songs are darker and more thoughtful, such as At Easter and The Blue Hills, whilst The Sea Gypsy is a wonderfully up-beat dramatic piece.

Howard Ferguson was born in Belfast but studied in London, at the Royal College of Music. Here we hear his five Irish Folksongs, each of which uses a tune collected by Sam Henry. Ferguson creates a real meeting between the folk-song and the art song, treating the music with elegant simplicity. The songs range from the lively patter of I'm from over the mountain, and My grandfather died to quietly expressive The Swan and the haunting melancholy of the disc's title song Calen-O.

Charles Wood's songs include settings of English versions of Irish verse, but also Christina Rosetti. These are large-scale art songs, with richly complex piano parts. At the mid hour of night is complex yet lyrical, whilst The Apron of Flowers is more folk-influenced, with a passionate piano postlude. The melancholy of Shall I forget, then gives way to the vigorous THe Outlaw of Loch Lene the impulsively powerful Credhe's Lament for Cail with its powerful piano part. At 3:50, this is also the longest song on the disc.

Finally, Carolyn Dobbin and Iain Burnside return to Hamilton Harty with Three Sea Prayers from the 'Greek Anthology', in which Harty sets translations from the Greek (he would also do setting of Sappho in translation). The three are a long way from folk-song, yet we can hear hints creeping in. All three take a rather rhapsodic view of word setting, with the passion of the outer two songs balanced by the delicacy of the middle one.

Dobbin clearly has a real connection with the songs and the texts, as she explains in a posting on her website, 'I found a lot of the songs immensely personal as they were about places familiar to me, places where I grew up, and the texts describe the landscapes and seascapes of the area beautifully. The language used in some songs was also familiar to me. A language which would today be classified as Ulster Scots, a language my Granny and Papa spoke and which evoked cherished memories.'

Carolyn Dobbin gives warmly passionate performances, bringing out the words and performing the songs with real sympathy and love, all the time finely partnered by Iain Burnside. Remarkably, 13 of the 23 tracks on the disc are premiere recordings which just goes to show how, despite the resurgence of interest in composers like Hamilton Harty and Howard Ferguson, we still have a long way to go. And I certainly hope that Dobbin returns to the studio to give us more.

Calen-O: Songs from the North of Ireland
Songs by Joan Trimble (1915-2000), Hamilton Harty (1879-1941), Howard Ferguson (1908-1999) and Charles Wood (1866-1926)
Carolyn Dobbin (mezzo-soprano)
Iain Burnside (piano)
Recorded at St Mary's Church, Haddington, 27-29 March 2017
DELPHIAN DCD34187 1CD [56.22]
Available from Amazon.

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  • Musical memoir: Tom Smail's Blue Electric at Tête à Tête  (★★★) - opera review
  • An uneasy mix: politics, spirituality and melody in Keith Burstein's new opera at Grimeborn  (★★★) - opera review
  • Jonas Kaufmann as Wagner’s Parsifal at the Munich Opera Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Piecing together the new opera Dear Marie Stopes  - guest post from composer Alex Mills
  • The classical saxophone: Huw Wiggin's Reflections (★★★★★) - CD review
  • New production of Shakespeare's Othello at the Globe Theatre - Theatre review
  • You can’t resist a splendid piece: Donizetti's Rita & Ravel's L'heure Espagnole at Grimeborn Festival - Opera review
  • Gripping psychodrama with a nod to Hitchcock: Barber's Vanessa at Glyndebourne (★★★★½)   - Opera review
  • Wagner: Der Ring des Nibelungen, Tiroler Festpiele Erl (Austria) (★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Introducing the art of bel canto - the London Bel Canto Festival  - Interview
  • Prom 26: Late night Baroque queens at the Royal Albert Hall  (★★★★) - concert review
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