Tuesday 8 June 2021

Heart & Hereafter: Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper's exploration of the songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor

Heart & Hereafter: collected songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Simon Lepper; Orchid Classics

Heart & Hereafter: collected songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor
; Elizabeth Llewellyn, Simon Lepper; Orchid Classics

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 6 May 2021 Star rating: 5.0 (★★★★★)
A lovely discovery, the English soprano makes her recital debut with an exploration of the songs of Coleridge-Taylor which makes you keen to hear more

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's pupils were a varied group and whilst his own music was firmly in the tradition of Brahms, that written by his pupils moved in different directions. The English school of the 20th century as typified by RVW and Holst arose in part, perhaps, because the older composer's teaching gave them something to rebel against. However the list of his pupils is wider than this, including Edgar Bainton, Arthur Benjamin, Arthur Bliss, Rutland Boughton, Herbert Brewer, Frank Bridge, Rebecca Clarke, Walford Davies, Thomas Dunhill, George Dyson, Leslie Heward, Eugene Goosens, Ivor Gurney, Herbert Howells, William Hurlstone, John Ireland, Gordon Jacob, Arthur Somervell, Charles Wood and Leopold Stokowski.

There is one more name, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who, despite being just three year younger than RVW and one year younger than Holst, created music which is quite firmly not in the mould of these two. When discussing Coleridge-Taylor three facts seem to predominate, his being mixed-race (a frankly remarkable factor at turn of the century Royal College of Music), his dying young and his writing of Hiawatha. We are exploring his music further, but when you look at his catalogue there are 83 opus numbers as well as works without opus (culled from Wikipedia). He was both talented young and apparently prolific.

When I heard soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn at Wigmore Hall last September (her debut recital with pianist Simon Lepper, see my review), I was surprised not only by the group of mature Coleridge-Taylor songs that she included, the Six Sorrow Songs, that they should be so completely unknown and, on doing some research, that there were so many other songs which are equally unknown.

For her debut recital on Orchid Classics, soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn has chosen to explore Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's song. Accompanied by pianist Simon Lepper, they perform 25 of the composer's songs including Six Sorrow Songs and African Romances plus songs from Southern Love Songs, Five Fairy Ballads, Songs from Sun and Shade and Six Songs.

Creating the album has required some research by Llewellyn, for a start there were more songs than she at first realised (perhaps 100s) and most were out of print, and only a few had managed to crop up on disc. So here she explores a wide variety of songs, from Coleridge-Taylor in highly serious mode to the more popular. It is clear from the start that not only does he perhaps hew somewhat closer to Stanford's Brahmsian model but that he combines this with a melodic facility and a willingness to create something which is distinctly popular in feel.

The poets he sets on this disc are a varied bunch, and Llewellyn in her booklet note comments on how sensitively Coleridge-Taylor sets female poets. So here we have Christina Rossetti, translations by J. G. Lockhart of ancient Spanish ballads, African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), the cultural-dance performer Kathleen Mary Easmon (1891-1924), Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall (1880-1943) who is best known for her novel The Well of Loneliness, Robert Browning (1812-1889), Jessie Adelaide Middleton (1864-1933) and a contemporary translation of Goethe's Faust for which Coleridge-Taylor wrote incidental music for a stage production. One thing that is noticeable is that though some of these settings approach parlour ballad and were perhaps written specifically for sale and to make money, Coleridge-Taylor avoids the sense of the overly sentimental which was a characteristic of a lot of late-19th and early-20th-century English song.

Whilst the songs show a fascinating both with the exotic and the afar, as well as setting poems by an African-American poet, none of those songs included here really reflect Coleridge-Taylor's engagement with African and African-American music. When Coleridge-Taylor met Paul Laurence Dunbar in London in 1906, a joint recital was arranged , under the patronage of US Ambassador John Milton Hay, and organised by Henry Francis Downing, an African-American playwright living in London resident.  Dunbar encouraged Coleridge-Taylor to draw from his Sierra Leonean ancestry and the music of the African continent, which becomes a thread in Coleridge-Taylor's later music.

Listening to this disc we can hear a distinct voice, one which is projected with confidence. Whilst Coleridge-Taylor sounds English, he writes differently from his colleagues such as RVW and Holst, and more imaginatively than some of the more traditional figures amongst Stanford's pupils. It is worth bearing in mind that when Stanford set his pupils the challenge of writing a clarinet quintet which did not owe everything to that by Brahms. This was something Stanford seems to have returned to at various times in his teaching, but when he saw that by Coleridge-Taylor (written in 1895) he exclaimed 'you've done it, me boy'. This quintet points up another influence on Coleridge-Taylor, that of Dvorak; Coleridge-Taylor has that composer's ability to take almost familiar melodic material and transform it to his own ends. And whilst we are talking of influences, there are a number of songs where the spirit of Edvard Grieg is not far away. (The Norwegian composer was in London in 1906, which was when he met Percy Grainger who would develop a strong connection to the older composer).

Llewellyn's diction is excellent, you never really needs the song texts, and she combines this with a lovely creamy tone and, when needed, that sense of having more reserves under the hood. Throughout she is sensitively partnered by Lepper. 

Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper during the recording session for 'Heart & Hereafter'
Elizabeth Llewellyn and Simon Lepper during the recording session for Heart & Hereafter

This is a lovely disc and very much a personal project. In the booklet, Llewellyn credits Simon Lepper with introducing her to Coleridge-Taylor's songs, but it is clear that the entire disc is very much her project. And it is a testament to Llewellyn and Lepper's success that I cannot think of a better introduction to Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's songs. Like the best such discs, each song they perform makes you want to hear more. It made me think that instead of simply bemoaning what Coleridge-Taylor might have achieved if he had lived longer, we should devote more time to exploring the music he did leave.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) - Six Sorrow Songs, Op.57
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - from “Southern Love Songs”, Op.12
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - African Romances, Op.17
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - from Five Fairy Ballads
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - from Songs of Sun and Shade
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - A king there lived in Thule
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - A Lament
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor - from Six Songs, Op.37
Elizabeth Llewellyn (soprano)
Simon Lepper (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK, on 24-26 November 2020

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