Wednesday 30 September 2020

Shedding light on an important figure in the Irish literary renaissaince: the songs and airs of J. F. Larchet prove a real discovery

John Francis Larchet Songs and Airs; Gavan Ring, Raphaela Mangan, Mia Cooper, Verity Simmons, Niall Kinsella; Champs Hill

John Francis Larchet Songs and Airs; Gavan Ring, Raphaela Mangan, Mia Cooper, Verity Simmons, Niall Kinsella; Champs Hill

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 September 2020 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Something of a discovery, song by an important figure in the Irish literary revival

John Francis Larchet was a completely new name to me. This disc from Champs Hill Records is very much a passion project from pianist Niall Kinsella, who is joined by mezzo-soprano Raphaela Mangan, baritone Gavan Ring, violinist Mia Cooper and cellist Verity Simmons for Larchet's complete songs and airs, which encompasses some 16 of Larchet's songs and two sets of Irish Airs for Violin & Piano.

That I had not heard of Larchet shows my ignorance, as he was part of the Irish literary revival during the early part of the 20th century and as musical director of the Abbey Theatre he provided incidental music for plays by WB Yeats, JM Synge and Lady Gregory.  Born in Dublin, Larchet studied at the Royal Irish Academy of Music (RIAM) and at Trinity College Dublin, where as a Catholic he had to get episcopal permission to enrol as it was a bastion of Protestantism! Appointments at the RIAM, and University College Dublin followed, and his role as an educator would be key (prior to his appointment at RIAM, the institution had had a heavy reliance on musicians from overseas). In 1908, he became musical director of the Abbey Theatre, and his first set of Irish Airs were almost certainly written for use at the theatre and some were prescribed for Feis Ceoil, the competitive festival of Irish traditional and classical music.

His first songs come from his student years, and they stretch all the way to 1955. Whilst he often set Irish poets he also sets Shelley. Some songs arise out of stage productions, The Song of the Faery Child comes from a production of WB Yeats' The Land of Heart's Desire which was given at the Abbey Theatre in 1935 to mark Larchet's retirement from the theatre.

Whilst Diarmuid's Lament, setting words by Michaél Mac Liammóir, comes from his historic masque, The Ford of the Hurdles, a Masque of Dublin, performed during Dublin Civic Week in 1929, and uses a beautifully expressive cello part to complement the voice.

Niall Kinsella in his introduction to the disc, explains that he came across Larchet's songs as a student, but of course knowing a handful of songs and arrangements and understanding a figure's importance is very different from being able to experience the full range of his imagination. What this valuable disc does is to give us a wide range of Larchet's songs, the figure who wrote for the Abbey Theatre but also wrote for the tenor John McCormack.

Larchet's style is certainly not advanced (he was born in 1884) but you would hardly expect that. He had the life of a practical musician, writing music for particular occasions and providing a valuable service both in terms of education and in terms of raising the quality of music associated with the Irish literary renaissance. His early songs such as The Philosophy of Love and In sweet humility cannot shake of a certain parlour-ish influence. Some later ones hint at folk influences, such as the beautifully rocking motion in the Ardglass Boat Song, or Padraic the Fiddler with a lovely solo violin line (the song was recorded by John McCormack and violinist Fritz Kreisler) which evokes RVW's folk-song arrangements with violin, though there is a clear Irish strain to Larchet's invention. By the time we come to A Stoirin Ban we have a clear voice, beautifully constructed and rather more imaginative than might be thought. Perhaps not a great musical figure, but an important one and one who, like an English figure like Roger Quilter, could turn a song into a perfectly made item where music and text were beautifully matched. Though sometimes, in the mature songs, the influence seems to also stretch back to an Irish composer of a previous generation, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1954)

The songs were recorded in 2018 and 2019, and Gavan Ring is still billed as a baritone on the cover, but Ring has subsequently transitioned to tenor and these must be some of the last documents of his life in the lower register.

Andrew Stewart's booklet article is wonderfully learned, including as it does a whole series of references, but I did wonder whether something a little more straight-forward might have been helpful. As someone who is woefully ignorant of the Irish literary renaissance, some background to the poets would not have come amiss, and whilst there are dates for the songs these are embedded in the article and having the year of composition listed on the track listing would have been a real help. 

Gavan Ring, Niall Kinsella, Mia Cooper in the Music Room at Champs Hill
Gavan Ring, Niall Kinsella, Mia Cooper in the Music Room at Champs Hill

The songs are recorded roughly in date order, which might not be the most sensible thing as we start with the most Edwardian parlour song-like items and work our way to Larchet's maturity. But there is plenty to discover here. Unlike a figure such as the Scots composer Francis George Scott (1880-1956) whom Larchet in some ways resembles, there are no special linguistic requirements to these songs (Scott, an important figure in the Scottish literary renaissance, set many songs in Scots which inhibits their performance by non-Scots figures). So there are songs here which would work in a recital by any Anglophone singer, and they deserve to be heard.

John Francis Larchet (1884-1967) - The Philosophy of Love
John Francis Larchet - In sweet humility
John Francis Larchet - Love's Question
John Francis Larchet - Love, and a garden
John Francis Larchet - Padraic the fiddler
John Francis Larchet - An Ardglass boat song
John Francis Larchet - Irish Airs for Violin and Piano, First Set
John Francis Larchet - A Stoirin Ban
John Francis Larchet - The Bard of Armagh
John Francis Larchet - The Song of the Faery Child
John Francis Larchet - Diarmuid's Lament
John Francis Larchet - The Thief of the World
John Francis Larchet - Irish Airs for Violin and Piano, Second Set
John Francis Larchet - The Stranger
John Francis Larchet - The Wee Boy in Bed
John Francis Larchet - The Cormorant
John Francis Larchet - Wee Hughie
John Francis Larchet - The Small Black Rose
Raphaela Mangan (mezzo-soprano)
Gavan Ring (baritone)
Mia Cooper (violin)
Verity Simmons (cello)
Niall Kinsella (piano)
Recorded 18-20 June 2018 & 29 May 2019, The Music Room, Champs Hill

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