Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Best known as a conductor and orchestral composer, Sir Hamilton Harty's expressively melodic songs are explored by Kathryn Rudge and Christopher Glynn

Songs by Sir Hamilton Harty; Kathryn Rudge, Christopher Glynn; SOMM
Songs by Sir Hamilton Harty; Kathryn Rudge, Christopher Glynn; SOMM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 22 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Better known for his orchestra music, this disc explores the songs of the Irish composer, pianist and conductor of the Hallé Orchestra

Whilst Sir Hamilton Harty remains best known as the conductor of the Hallé Orchestra (from 1920 to 1933), his work as a composer has become known particularly thanks to the sequence of recordings of Harty's orchestral music made Bryden Thomson and the Ulster Orchestra on Chandos. A disc of his chamber music appeared on Hyperion in 2012, but so far Harty's songs seem to have been relatively unexplored, though Caroline Dobbin and Ian Burnside included a number on their Delphian disc Calen-O: Songs from the North of Ireland [see my review]. That makes doubly welcome this new disc, the first I think entirely devoted to Hamilton Harty's songs, on SOMM performed by Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano) and Christopher Glynn (piano).

What is surprising is that Harty wrote songs all his life. Whilst the majority of them seem to date from the period from 1901 (when he first came to London) to the outbreak of the First World War, and his commitments to the Hallé from 1920 meant that his output diminished, yet when ill-health forced him to stop working with the orchestra he returned to song.

Mrs. George Swinton by John Singer Sargent (Art Institute of Chicago)
Mrs. George Swinton (the singer Elsie Swinton)
by John Singer Sargent (Art Institute of Chicago)
In fact, Harty started out his life as a distinguished accompanist (he preferred the term collaborator) and married the soprano Agnes Nicholls for whom he wrote a number of songs. Nicholls' roles included Sieglinde in Wagner's Die Walküre and Brünnhilde in Siegfried, through frustratingly she never seems to have recorded any of these and the closes we can come is her account of 'Ocean thou mighty monster' from Weber's Oberon [YouTube].

In style, Harty's songs take little account of contemporary changes of musical style. The repertoire on the disc has echoes of Christine Brewer's disc Echoes of Nightingales (on Hyperion) which includes repertoire written specifically for distinguished dramatic sopranos to sing, and it should be pointed out that Nicholls was a Wagnerian. But Harty's songs were also beloved of singers such as Dame Isobel Baillie, who had a long working relationship with Harty, and did record some of his songs. In fact, Baillie thought enough of them to return to Harty's songs in 1974 when she recorded more as part of the celebrations for her 75th birthday! [YouTube]

Harty was born in Hillsborough, Co.Down and got his first musical experiences in Dublin, before he came to London. Ireland never seems to have been far away when he composed, his tone poems are often inspired by the country and the songs on this disc include some arrangements of Irish traditional songs such as Three Traditional Ulster Airs. And when Harty was not arranging songs, he could choose Irish poets for his texts and the cast of Irish traditional music seems to inflect his beautifully shaped vocal lines.

Yet his songs can also have an interesting complexity to them. In 1909, he wrote a group of songs for Agnes Nicholls to sing, Three Sea Prayers from the Greek Anthology; Rudge and Glynn gives us the first song 'To the Gods of Harbour and Headland'. Melodic yes, conservative perhaps, but imaginative and richly textured. Harty accompanied his wife at the premiere, so he knew that he could comfortably write a complex piano part knowing that Nicholls would be able to soar on the spacious vocal line.

His Five Irish Sketches were written in 1911 for the mezzo-soprano Elsie Swinton (who unusually was a lady from the upper classes who became a professional singer; the CD booklet includes her impressive swagger portrait by John Singer Sargent, see above). Harty called the songs duets for voice and piano, and Harty's response to the poetry in 'A Stranger's Grave' is complex and moving. In 1938, he wrote Five Irish Poems (which were premiered by the tenor Parry Jones), and here we are quite a way from the ballad and from traditional Irish song. Rudge and Glynn perform two of them, 'At Easter' and 'The Fiddler of Dooney'. Both somewhat conservative for the period, but both interestingly complex.

The disc also includes a pair of piano solos, which punctuate the recital, both written relatively early in Harty's career.

This sounds grateful music to sing, and Harty was clearly sympathetic to the texts he chose, and his poets are by and large his contemporaries. Whilst he does not spin melodies that are ear-worms, he certainly knows how to create a shapely melodic phrase, and an expressive one. In style, the ballad is a big influence, you feel that singers would be able to use these songs. As a fine pianist and distinguished accompanist, Harty's piano parts are richly imaginative and on this disc Rudge and Glynn make a fine pairing, the one spinning out a series of shapely lines and the other providing richly texture support and finely emotional partnering. And I must commend Rudge's diction, you hardly need the printed words.

Hamilton Harty's songs will perhaps never be a major part of the English song tradition, but there is more in them that parlour ballads and arrangements of traditional songs. This selection from Kathryn Rudge and Christopher Glynn treats the songs with the care and attention they deserve, and shows the songs to be well worth exploring. For the audience and for singers, as you feel this repertoire would be useful in song recital planning. And I would very much prefer to hear complete, the groups of more complex songs such as Three Prayers from the Greek Anthology, and Five Irish Sketches and Five Irish Poems.
Hamilton Harty (1879-1941) - Sea Wrack
Hamilton Harty - Scythe Song
Hamilton Harty - My Lagan Love
Hamilton Harty - The Blue Hills of Antrim
Hamilton Harty - Arlequin and Columbine
Hamilton Harty - A Cradle Song
Hamilton Harty - The Song of Glen Dun
Hamilton Harty - Mignonette
Hamilton Harty - By the Sea
Hamilton Harty - The Fiddler of Dooney
Hamilton Harty - To the Gods of Harbour and Headland
Hamilton Harty - The Lowlands of Holland
Hamilton Harty - By the Bivouac’s Fitful Flame
Hamilton Harty - Dreaming
Hamilton Harty - The Stranger’s Grave
Hamilton Harty - Idyll
Hamilton Harty - Poppies
Hamilton Harty - Flame in the Skies of Sunset
Hamilton Harty - Lane o’ the Thrushes
Hamilton Harty - A Lullaby
Hamilton Harty - My Thoughts of You
Hamilton Harty - Your Hand in Mine, Beloved
Hamilton Harty - At Easter
Hamilton Harty - Come, O Come, My Life's Delight
Hamilton Harty - Adieu, Sweet Amaryllis
Kathryn Rudge (mezzo-soprano)
Christopher Glynn (piano)
Recorded at Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton on April 9-10, 2018; Piano solos recorded at St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London, December 7, 2019
SOMM SOMMCD0616 1CD [71:25]

Update: In the first version of this article I managed to entirely miss Caroline Dobbin's disc, my apologies. It should also be noted that of the 17 songs claimed to be world premiere recordings on this disc, a number were included on Dobbin's disc.

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