Friday 23 April 2021

Thoughtful and imaginative: The Children's Hour sees baritone Gareth Brymor John and pianist William Vann taking a very adult view of childhood

The Children's Hour - Charles Ives, Carl Loewe, Schubert, Schumann, Liza Lehmann, Britten, Mahler, Stanford,Warlock Howells, Faure, Mendelssohn, Richard Rodney Bennett; Gareth Brynmor John, William Vann; Champs Hill Records

The Children's Hour
- Charles Ives, Carl Loewe, Schubert, Schumann, Liza Lehmann, Britten, Mahler, Stanford,Warlock Howells, Faure, Mendelssohn, Richard Rodney Bennett; Gareth Brynmor John, William Vann; Champs Hill Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 23 April 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A beautifully thought out and finely crafted recital which imaginatively arises out of Charles Ives' title song

We caught baritone Gareth Brynmor John and pianist William Vann in their programme The Children's Hour at Pizza Express at the Pheasantry in Chelsea in 2019 [see my review] and now the programme is out on disc. The Children's Hour on Champs Hill Records features Gareth Brynmor John and William Vann in songs by Charles Ives, Carl Loewe, Schubert, Schumann, Liza Lehmann, Britten, Mahler, Stanford, Warlock, Howells, Faure, and Mendelssohn plus Richard Rodney Bennett's Songs before Sleep.

The recital begins with Charles Ives lovely, intimate setting of Longfellow The Children's Hour which was the starting point for the programme, expanding the song into ideas arising from the time spent with children just before bedtime, usually reading stories and such.

It is divided into thematic sections, Fairy Tales and Cautionary Tales, Days Out and Adventures, Nursery Rhymes, and Lullabies and Bedtime, which allows for quite an eclectic mix of composers and themes, including both Loewe's ballad Tom der Reimer and Schubert's Erlkonig, alongside settings of Hilaire Belloc and Walter de la Mare by Liza Lehmann and Herbert Howells. At the 2019 concert, William Vann commented that whilst the Days Out and Adventures section includes plenty of pirates, they had been unable to find any songs about dinosaurs, which had been his son's current obsession!

After a beautifully intimate account of Ives' The Children's Hour, the first section Fairy Tales and Cautionary Tales is bookended by highly mature songs by Loewe, Schubert and Mahler. With both Loewe's Tom der Reimer and Schubert's Erlkonig the emphasis is on storytelling and ballad singing, John characterises finely but does not venture into the operatic. Schumann's Der Sandman is delightful, but it is Liza Lehmann's Hilaire Belloc setting, Henry King which really stays in the memory with John's wonderfully mock tragic performance. The section ends with Gustav Mahler's Das irdische Leben which moves things into serious territory, finely performed (I have fond memories of John's Mahler performances at Oxford Lieder Festival some years ago).

Days Out and Adventures begins with some swagger. Stanford's Drake's Drum and Warlock's Captain Stratton's Fancy but whilst the Warlock swaggers wonderfully, John and Vann show that the Stanford song is rather more complex than we give it credit for. Howell's Andy Battle might set a Walter de la Mare poem about a pirate, but Howell's response is complex and leaves the ballad form firmly behind. The section ends with a pair of Charles Ives songs, the complex and disturbing Tom Sails Away and vividly cacophanous The Circus Band.

Richard Rodney Bennett wrote Songs Before Sleep for Jonathan Lemalu (commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and the Royal Philharmonic Society) in 2002. It was Bennett's sister's idea to use the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes as a source, and Bennett sets six nursery rhymes but provides his own tunes for all of them (including for 'Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star', which includes far more verses than your mother probably ever sang to you). These are terrific songs, a very adult approach to the nursery rhyme. There is certainly nothing childish about them, some are positively disturbing; John and Vann perform them with real relish. Perhaps we can think of them both as an exploration of the adult themes which underly the apparently simple rhymes, but also the idea of what might be in the parent's head whilst they recite the rhymes for their children.

The final sections is Lullabies and Bedtime, with songs by herbert Howells, Faure, Mendelssohn and Charles Ives. We being with a pair of songs from Howells' Peacock Pie, the strangely disturbing 'Tired Tim' and the beautifully evocative 'Full moon' both settings of Walter de la Mare.  Then comes a complete change of mood with Faure's rather disturbing Les Berceaux, and Mendelssohn's quietly thoughtful Nachtlied. And for the last song we return to Charles Ives, with his haunting Cradle Song.

This is beautifully thought out and executed programme, it brings together an eclectic mix of songs in a brilliantly intriguing way, yet in a manner that links personally to both performers (each of whom has two young children) and in their introduction, Vann and John thank their wives and dedicate the album to their children. But more than that, it is finely engaging recital, with both performers comfortably moving from the dramatic ballad to the comic song to Mahler to Faure. Throughout I enjoyed their attention to detail, and the finely crafted sense whatever the subject matter. John's diction is superb, which is a good thing as a number of songs (largely the Hilaire Belloc and Walter de la Mare settings) are not included in the texts and transalations.

Charles Ives - The Children's Hour
Carl Loewe - Tom der Reimer
Franz Schubert - Erlkonig
Robert Schumann - Der Sandmann
Liza Lehmann - Henry King
Benjamin Britten - Little Sir William
Gustav Mahler - Das irdische Leben

Charles Villiers Stanford - Drake's Drum
Peter Warlock - Captain Stratton's Fancy
Herber Howells - Andy Battle
Charles Ives - Tom Sails Away
Charles Ives - The Circus Band

Richard Rodney Bennett - Songs before sleep

Herbert Howells - Tired Tim; Full Moon (Peacock Pie)
Gabriel Faure - Le Berceaux
Felix Mendelssohn - Nachtlied
Charles Ives - Cradle Song
Gareth Brynmor John (baritone)
William Vann (piano)
Recorded 4-6 June 2018, the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex

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