Friday 26 March 2021

A musical microcosm of 2020: Isolation Songbook from Helen Charlston, Michael Craddock and Alexander Soares on Delphian

Isolation Songbook; Helen Charlston, Michael Craddock, Alexander Soares; Delphian

Isolation Songbook
; Helen Charlston, Michael Craddock, Alexander Soares; Delphian

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 26 March 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A musical snapshot of 2020, 24 songs by 15 contemporary composers capturing the musical climate

It all began with a wedding, or rather the lack of one. Mezzo-soprano Helen Charlston and baritone Michael Craddock were due to be married in April 2020. When this was cancelled, Helen wrote a poem and sent it to their friend Owain Park who created a song, 18th April, and this led to more songs from friends and other contacts including Helen's father, harpsichordist Terence Charlston, thus creating Isolation Songbook. Helen, Michael and pianist Alexander Soares were able to perform the programme once, at a City Music Foundation live-streamed recital in July 2020 and they recorded the disc in Edinburgh in September 2020.

Isolation Songbook on Delphian features songs by Owain Park, Heloise Werner, Andrew Brixey-Williams, Kerensa Briggs, Nathan James Dearden, Richard Barnard, Joshua Borin, Ben Rowarth, Elliott Park, Derri Joseph Lewis, Terence Charlston, Gerda Blok-Wilson, James Davy and Stephen Bick, performed by Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano), Michael Craddock (baritone) and Alexander Soares (piano).

There are fifteen composers on the disc, the majority are of an age to be contemporaries of the performers, friends, colleages, friends of friends, but the net is somewhat wider with a range of birth dates from 1955 to 1997. Some set texts specially written for the project, whilst others set more established poets including Ian McMIllan, A.A.Milne, Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, Ogden Nash, Emily Dickenson and John Milne, as well as some of Eddie Braben's text for The Morecambe & Wise Show!

What is fascinating is that, despite this variety, many of the composers seem to have hit upon aspects of the same mood, which lends the programme a consistency that can be lacking from such enterprises. It is a mood of introspection, many of the works can read almost as stream of consciousness, thoughts flowing. And faced with Helen Charlston's wondrously plangent voice and terrific sense of strong line, many composers opt for a sort of undulating, expressionist line pointed from beneath by the piano, and there are a number of 'walking' songs in the programme.

Isolation Songbook; Helen Charlston, Michael Craddock, Alexander Soares; Delphian
Michael Craddock
We begin with Owain Park's setting of Helen Charlston's poem, a duet with piano where the plangent lines and attention to text rather evoke the distant spirit of Stephen Sondheim. Heloise Werner sets a rather strange new poem by Ali Lewis (born 1991) inspired by a print, Orange Vendor, Spain (1916) by Natalia Goncharova. Werner sets the poem as an unaccompanied duet, almost canonic at times and seemingly delighting in the non-sequiturs in the poem. For Abat-jour, Andrew Brixey-Williams uses an English translation of a poem by Pierre Reverdy (poet, French Resistance fighter, friend of Coco Chanel) to create a thoughtful mood picture for mezzo-soprano and piano from expressionist vocal lines and spare harmonies. 

Kerensa Briggs uses words by Gareth Mattey in Melancholy (and Buttercream), to depict a moment in domestic life for duet with piano, she baking and he commenting and narrating, neither completely comfortable. Nathan James Dearden sets Katharine Towers in the way we go, for mezzo-soprano and piano. An intriguing piece which moves from the thoughtful to the intense.

Richard Barnard's Three Early Stroll Songs sets three short poems (originally Tweeted evidently) by Ian Macmillan. Aphoristic and wry, these are characterful pieces very much about the words, almost stream of consciousness. Barnard varies his forces, baritone and piano, mezzo-soprano and piano, and finally an unaccompanied duet with the voices winding round a single note. Joshua Borin sets a poem by Sophie Rashbrook for Nature is Returning, at first it seems to be an expressive, somewhat expressionist paen to nature but then there are interruptions as the poet keeps trying to catch a moth!

Ben Rowarth's A.A. Milne setting, The King's Breakfast is a mini-opera with characters including the King, the Queen, the Dairymaid and the Cow, all in a little over three minutes. It is a complete delight and makes a lovely contrast with the prevailing mood of melancholy introspection.

Elliott Park's Skysong gives the musicians quite a lot of freedom, with various episodes plus a wordless refrain. We hear just four sections (opening and closing refrain and two episodes). The music includes bird-song recorded by Park from his terrace at home, and the result is quietly atmospheric.

Derri Joseph Lewis sets Mary Elizabeth Coleridge for A Moment, a thoughtful duet with a sparing use of piano. Terence Charlston's Three Duets use his own texts plus one by Alexander Kelly to create three striking, short songs with a rather appealing use of counterpoint.

Matthew J C Ward uses three aphoristic poems for his cycle Concerning Cows: A Rural Song Cycle, a lively succint set for baritone and piano, perkily performed. Gerda Blok-Wilson makes Emily Dickinson's I'm a Nobody into a duet which is perhaps humorous but also rather dramatic. James Davy's Dreams sets words by the South African musician and writer Barry Smith, with the two characters' inner thoughts developing into something quite romantic. 

The final song, for mezzo-soprano and piano, is again somewhat romantic with Stephen Bick setting John Milton's sonnet On His Blindness, making a rather striking end to what is a rather wonderful recital, capturing 2020 in a musical microcosm.

Isolation Songbook; Helen Charlston, Michael Craddock, Alexander Soares; Delphian
Alexander Soares

Owain Park (born 1993) - 18th April
Heloise Werner (born 1991) - The Orange Vendor
Andrew Brixey-Williams (born 1956) - Abat-jour
Kerensa Briggs (born 1991) - Melancholy (and Buttercream)
Nathan James Dearden (born 1992) - the way we go
Richard Barnard (born 1977) - Three Early Stroll Songs
Joshua Borin (born 1989) - Nature is Returning
Ben Rowarth (born 1992) - The King's Breakfast
Elliott Park (born 1994) - Skysong
Derri Joseph Lewis (born 1997) - A Moment
Terence Charlston (born 1962) - Three Duets
Matthew JC Ward (born 1987) - Concerning Cows: A Rural Song Cycle
Gerda Blok-Wilson (born 1955) - I'm Nobody
James Davy (born 1980) - Dreams
Stephe Bick (born 1993) - On His Blindness
Helen Charlston (mezzo-soprano)
Michael Craddock (baritone)
Alexander Soares (piano)
Recorded on 3-5 September 2020 in The Queen's Hall, Edinburgh
DEPHIAN DCD34253 1CD [65.04]

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