Thursday 11 June 2020

Cultured, well-made songs: The Complete Roger Quilter Songbook from Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow

The Roger Quilter Songbook, volume 3; Mark Stone, Stephen Barlow; Stone Records
The Roger Quilter Songbook, volume 3; Mark Stone, Stephen Barlow; Stone Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 9 June 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The third volume of Stone Record's exploration of the gentle, well-made songs of Roger Quilter, focusing mainly on his arrangements of folk-song and traditional songs

The English composer Roger Quilter is best known for just a handful of songs. An admirable project from Stone Records has seen baritone Mark Stone and pianist Stephen Barlow record all of Quilter's songs, with the aim of encouraging us to explore further. The third volume of their Quilter Songbook focuses on Quilter's folk-song arrangements, The Arnold Book of Old Songs, plus Four Songs of Mirza Schaffy, and songs from Quilter's light opera Love at the Inn.

Born in 1877, Roger Quilter was a younger son of the stockbroker and politician, Sir William Cuthbert Quilter, Bart. Quilter's father disapproved of his son's chosen career as a musician, and it was only when his father died in 1911 that Roger Quilter inherited enough money to be able to live an independent lifestyle. Quilter had trained at the Conservatory in Frankfurt where he was a fellow student of Percy Grainger, Cyril Scott, Balfour Gardiner, and Norman O'Neill, who became known as the Frankfurt Group (or the Frankfurt Gang). It has been said of them that they were united by their friendship and non-conformity rather than particular musical ideals, though all were in different ways resistant to English musical nationalism and the English school of RVW and Holst, admiring composers with a more continental influence such as Fredrick Delius. Another link between them is that all would, at times, write works tinged with light music, tuneful and approachable.

I know Roger Quilters name, because he floats across the biographies of Percy Grainger, but without any sense of knowing the man deeply, and there is a danger of us doing the same with the songs which are beautifully made, approachable and lyrically attractive. Yet there is always Quilter's particular voice, and the man himself was clearly more complex.
The early songs included on the disc are notable for their lyrical beauty, and apparent ease of composition. A memory of Quilter's Frankfurt days comes from his Four Songs of Mirza Shaffy, these set German translations by Friedrich Martin von Bodenstedt (1819-1892) after the Azerbaijani poet, Mirza Shafi Vazeh (1794-1852). Quilter wrote the settings originally in 1903, inscribing them 'in remembrance of Frankfort days', then revised them in 1911. Each of the four contrasting songs has an attractive lyricism to it, and it is intriguing hearing Quilter's very English approach to setting German.

In 1911, Quilter was asked to write incidental music for Emilie Clifford's play Where the rainbow ends, and this proved intensely long-running, appearing at Christmas in London for nearly 50 years. The disc includes Slumber Song from this, an attractive song characterised by its gentle rocking motion.

Quilter's inheritance in 1911 enabled him to have a somewhat independent lifestyle, acquiring a circle of friends centred around the American painter Florence Koehler (an artistic circle which was substantially homosexual). Unlike his friend Percy Grainger, who left the UK for America at the outbreak of World War I, Quilter stayed but was invalided out. He found the war difficult, unable to concentrate on music, and he was often ill. 

Quilter was known primarily as a gentle and gentlemanly composer of elegant songs. However, Mark Stone's booklet note for the CD includes a rather tempting titbit about Quilter's behaviour, 'During the war, he visited his friend Louis de Glehn, a linguist who lived in Grantchester and occasionally took paying guests for intensive language coaching. One such student, an eighteen-year-old French boy, gave an insight of Quilter’s behaviour with young men, writing in his diary that Quilter was rather free with his hands.' And there are rumours of blackmail, which was always a risk for homosexuals; almost certainly most of Quilter's emotional life remains hidden under this cultured and gentlemanly exterior. [Louis de Glehn's brother was the painter Wilfred de Glehn whose portrait of Roger Quilter is in the National Portrait Gallery].

Many of the songs on the disc are from The Arnold Book of Old Songs, settings and arrangements of folk-songs and traditional songs which Quilter created to cheer up his nephew Arnold Vivian who joined up on the outbreak of World War II.  Unfortunately, in September 1942, when a prisoner of war, Arnold attempted to escape whilst being transported. The family received no further news until the war ended, when it was revealed they had been captured and shot. Quilter never recovered from the shock.

As well as folk-song, there is also intriguingly a spiritual, I got a robe, arranged by Quilter for a 1928 recital by the American contralto Marion Anderson when he and Anderson gave a recital at the Wigmore Hall.

Amongst the stray, individual songs on the disc there is Wind from the South, 1936 setting of words by John Irvine, where Quilter combines a languid atmosphere with intriguing harmonies. Quilter collaborated on a number of songs with Rodney Bennett (1890-1948), father of the composer Richard Rodney Bennett, and also on a light opera that started off under the name The blue boar, and went through a number of incarnations including Love at the Inn, unfortunately the critical response was only ever moderate, The Sunday Times called it a 'very charming musical comedy', and both the items on the disc have great lyrical charm, with 'Love calls through the Summer night' being an engaging waltz. Quilter's individual songs with Rodney Bennett included the vigorous, patriotic song Freedom which is performed with suitable swagger, and their rather touching 1945 carol, The cradle in Bethlehem.

The disc also includes a clutch of late, late songs, The walled-in garden (setting Arthur Heald) from 1952, and Daisies after rain (setting Judith Bickle) from 1951. Both are notable for their lyrical beauty, and sense of the well-made song.

The disc was recorded way back in 2007, and evidently the production delays arising from this disc prompted Mark Stone to set up his record label, Stone Records.

A Roger Quilter song is a beautifully made thing, and whilst many of his songs can seem perilously close to the sort of parlour ballads which were popular at the beginning of his career, his own sympathetic and gentle voice is always present. Mark Stone is in fine voice here, and you certainly do not need the printed words. Throughout he brings a lovely freshness to the vocal line, particularly in the arrangements, and throughout is sympathetically partnered by Stephen Barlow.

Roger Quilter
 i Drink to me only with thine eyes (Ben Jonson)
 ii Over the mountains (Anonymous)
 iii My Lady Greensleeves (John Irvine)
 xii The jolly miller (Anonymous)
 xiii Barbara Allen (Anonymous)
 xiv Three poor mariners (Anonymous)
 xv Since first I saw your face (Anonymous)
WHAT WILL YOU DO, LOVE? (Samuel Lover)
 iv Believe me, if all those endearing young charms
 v Oh! ’tis sweet to think
THE ROSE OF TRALEE (Edward Mordaunt Spencer)
I GOT A ROBE (Anonymous)
SLUMBER SONG (Clifford Mills)
 vi Ye banks and braes (Robert Burns)
 vii Charlie is my darling (Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne)
 viii Ca’ the yowes to the knowes (Robert Burns)
FREEDOM (Rodney Bennett)
 If love should pass me by
 Love calls through the summer night
 ix The man behind the plough (Rodney Bennett)
 x My lady’s garden (Rodney Bennett)
 xi Pretty month of May (Anonymous)
VOUS ET MOI (Sofia Acquaviva D’aragona)
FOUR SONGS OF MIRZA SCHAFFY Op.2 (Friedrich Martin von Bodenstedt after Mirza Shafi Vazeh)
 i Neig’ schöne Knospe dich zu mir
 ii Und was die Sonne glüht
 iii Ich fühle deinen Odem
 iv Die helle Sonne leuchtet
 xvi The Ash Grove (Rodney Bennett)

Mark Stone (baritone)
Stephen Barlow (piano)
Recorded 19-21 January 2007,  The Music Room, Champs Hill, W. Sussex

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