Wednesday 7 July 2021

Independent voices: James Gilchrist & Nathan WIlliamson's One Hundred Years of British Song explores William Alwyn, Alan Bush, Alan Rawsthorne, Elizabeth Maconchy, Doreen Carwithen

One Hundred Years of British Song, volume two - William Alwyn, Alan Bush, Alan Rawsthorne, Elizabeth Maconchy, Doreen Carwithen; James Gilchrist, Nathan Williamson; SOMM

One Hundred Years of British Song, volume two
- William Alwyn, Alan Bush, Alan Rawsthorne, Elizabeth Maconchy, Doreen Carwithen; James Gilchrist, Nathan Williamson; SOMM

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A terrific exploration of 20th-century English song that has somehow been forgotten, many works by composers better known for their symphonic or instrumental repertoire

Tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Nathan Williamson's One Hundred Years of British Song project on SOMM Records is ploughing a fascinatingly independent path. Intended to spotlight composers who made a considerable contribution to the song repertoire but whose success in other genres often led to their songs being overlooked, volume one included songs by Gustav Holst, Rebecca Clarke, Ivor Gurney and Frank Bridge. For One Hundred Years of British Song, volume two, on SOMM, James Gilchrist and Nathan Williamson perform song cycles by William Alwyn, Alan Bush, Alan Rawsthorne, Elizabeth Maconchy and Doreen Carwithen.

The five composers on this disc all initially concentrated mainly on symphonic and chamber instrumental music rather than song and this seems to have given them an independence from the strong tradition of English song from the first part of the 20th century. Here we have five confident and independent voices.

William Alwyn's 1978 song cycle Leave Taking dates from the period after he retired from writing music for films, when he created two operas and five song cycles. The cycle sets poems by Lord de Tabley (1835-1895), many nature-orientated and all rather melancholy. By this stage of his career (Alwyn was over 70 when he wrote the songs), Alwyn's music has a pared-back quality with a strong sense of neo-classicism in the background. But the atmospheric first song, 'The Pilgrim Cranes' is balanced by the more Romantic feel of 'Daffodils', and Alwyn does not shy away from Romantic climaxes but his harmony remains striking and imaginative, and as Nathan Williamson points out in his admirable booklet not, Alwyn balanced the heightened Romanticism with moments of real simplicity. 'Study of a Spider' stands out both for the way Alwyn's sinuous melody evokes the spider, and for the terrific way he sets the poet's descriptive words. 

Prison Cycle takes us back to 1939 and to the friendship between Alan Rawsthorne and Alan Bush. The cycle was commissioned the Free German League of Culture, a body founded in London in 1939 by German refugees. The poet is the socialist Ernst Toller, imprisoned by the Nazis following his involvement in the Bavarian Workers’ Republic and who committed suicide in May 1939. Anne Wood and Alan Bush premiered the songs at Conway Hall but the manuscript was then mislaid for 35 years.

The five songs interleave Bush and Rawsthorne (AB, AB, AR, AR, AB), with the first third and fifth songs acting as a sort of ritornello based on the same dark, brooding intense material inspired by the poet pacing in his cell. The whole cycle takes on this dark intensity even the other two songs which are more flowing. The fifth song (by Rawsthorne) is almost a waltz, but still highly expressionist. The work has a great feel of place and time, both in its commissioning and in its music. This was the period when Bush was consciously re-working his style, attempting to make music which was simpler yet still of significance and it is fascinating to compare the style of the two composers and see how music commonality there was.

Next come Alan Rawsthorne's Two Songs to Poems by John Fletcher. The first rather Hindemith-like in its use of neo-Baroque counterpoint to expressionist effect, and the second short and vivid, with determinedly uneven phrases in the voice just to keep us on our toes.

Elizabeth Maconchy had concentrated on symphonic and chamber repertoire, forging an identity which seemed more influenced by contemporary European composers than that of her teacher RVW. But from 1957, with her attention turned to opera and to song, a more melodious element entered her musical languaged. Her Three Donne Songs were written in 1964. 'A Hymn to God the Father' is rather intense, featuring a rather wandering, chromatic vocal line with a similarly sinuous piano with some surprising harmonic twists. 'A Hymn to Christ' is dark, strong and also intense, a terrific handling of Donne's words. The final song, 'The Sun Rising' is spiky and rather distinctive in its handling of the word setting. Quite why this stupendous trio of songs have been rather left on the shelf, is anyone's guess. This disc is their first recording.

With Doreen Carwithen we have the complex issue of the composer as composer's wife, just as much an issue in mid-Century England as it was to Robert and Clara Schumann. Carwithen lived with her former teacher William Alwyn (the two only married in the 1970s) and devoted herself to his career. She created The William Alwyn Foundation in 1990 and the foundation has championed her music alongside that of Alwyn. Apart from a stray children's song, the seven songs recorded here are her entire output in the genre. All are first recordings.

We begin with Serenade (setting Philip Sydney), lyric and gentle with more a sense of the classic tradition of 20th century song. Three settings of Walter de la Mare follow, one gentle and poetic, the next almost langorous with a lovely clarity in the piano writing, the last a brillaint evocation of witches night ride, full of swagger. Clear had the day been is a lovely setting of the 16th century poet Michael Drayton, with a gentle intimacy and again clarity to the harmony. Slow Spring, setting Katharine Tynan is rather langorous, a slow evocation of the coming of Spring. Finally, a last Walter de la Mare setting, Echo (Who Called)? with striking vocals over a busy piano creating a real sense of musical personality.

Performances are terrific throughout; Gilchrist and Williamson form a real partnership and strongly identify with each song. Gilchrist's diction is superb and he really demonstrates how these composers all coloured and evoked the words, each in their different way, whilst Williamson is devestatingly deft in his handling of the complex piano parts.

Having heard Nigel Foster and London Song Festival's exploration of songs by Peter Wishart, Geoffrey Bush (no relation) and Malcolm Arnold on Monday [see my review] it was lovely to be listening to another group of English song composers whose work seems to have passed the mainstream by and make you hope that recitalists will be more daring in their programming.

This is a terrific disc, enabling us to hear much of the other music that was in the song recitals of the 20th century and letting us feel quite how varied the English Song repertoire became. It is curious that all the music on this disc has somehow lapsed and we can only look forward to the next volume and hope that this disc will spur other singers on to performing this repertoire. 

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