Friday 1 September 2023

The Complete Hums of Pooh and more: Grant Doyle and John Kember's Enchanted Places

Enchanted Places: The Complete Fraser-Simpson settings of A.A. Milne; Grant Doyle, John Kember; EM Records

Enchanted Places: The Complete Fraser-Simpson settings of A.A. Milne; Grant Doyle, John Kember; EM Records

Redolent of a certain age, the complete songs to A.A.Milne's poems by his contemporary and neighbour, Howard Fraser-Simpson, composer of  The Maid in the Mountains

People over a certain age will almost certainly remember the song, to words by A.A. Milne, They're changing guard at Buckingham Palace, though until I received a copy of baritone Grant Doyle and pianist John Kember's new disc, I was totally unaware of the composer. Enchanted Places on EM Records features the complete A.A. Milne settings by composer Howard Fraser-Simpson. 

There are 67 songs in all including The Complete Hums of Pooh (some 16 songs), just short of 150 minutes of music and you cannot help feeling that the recordng is something of a labour of love.

Howard Fraser-Simpson (1872-1944) was a composer of light music, he began publishing songs in 1907, his first piece of musical theatre, Bonita in 1911 and perhaps his best-known musical play, The Maid in the Mountains in 1917, and he continued to write musicals to the end of the 1920s, and he composed incidental music and songs for Toad of Toad Hall (1929), A. A. Milne’s stage play based on Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Fraser-Simpson also published Songs from Alice in Wonderland (1932).

A.A. Milne (1882-1956) was an established and prolific playwright, writing more than 40 plays. The birth of his and his wife Daphne's only child, Christopher Robin in 1920, brought forth a series of verse for children, When We Were Very Young (1924) and Now We Are Six (1927) plus the stories Winne the Pooh (1926) and The House at Pooh Corner (1928), with adventures set in the Sussex countryside around the Ashdown Forest near the family’s holiday home.

Once When We Were Very Young was published, Milne received offers to set the poems to music, but it was to Howard Fraser-Simpson that he turned. Not only was Fraser-Simpson a successful composer of light music and songs, but the two were were near neighbours and fellow members of the Garrick Club and young Christopher Milne, on walks with his nanny, frequently met Fraser-Simpson out walking his liver-and-white spaniel, Mr Henry Woggins. And throughout the 1920, Fraser-Simpson produced a series of books of the songs.

They are very period in style, and for anyone brought up on the songs from the Walt Disney animated film, they are perhaps a little polite. But Fraser-Simpson is always at the service of the words, each song is a delightfully crafted yet simple and effective presentation of the words. In Pooh's hums, we can very much hear Pooh as the incarnation of an English country gentleman of the 1920s!

The performances from Grant Doyle and John Kember are exemplary. Doyle's diction is superb so that it matters not that we have no printed text, you can hear every word. And he has the right sense of style in that he does not try to do to much with the music, letting it simply shape the words. In some of the songs, particularly the Pooh ones, you sense also a sort of sly humour underlying it, that Doyle and Kember are enjoying themselves.

At the end of the disc comes the slightly more developed, The Kings Breakfast which features not just two songs but beautifully po-faced spoken introductions from Brian Sibley, and a short instrumental interlude from Grant Doyle (flute), Eloise Prouse (violin), Tom Pollock (French horn), Dan Burrows (cello).

Grant Doyle and John Kember visit Poohsticks Bridge, Hartfield, Sussex (Photo Eloise Prouse)
Grant Doyle and John Kember visit Poohsticks Bridge, Hartfield, Sussex (Photo Eloise Prouse)

Frankly, the set is rather a marathon at one sitting. Fraser-Simpson's style does not really vary enough for that, but to dip into the set is a complete delight and pick any moment and you get music redolent of that particular period.

Enchanted Places: The Complete Fraser-Simpson settings of A.A. Milne
Grant Doyle (baritone)
John Kember (piano)
Brian Sibley (narrator)
EM Records
Recorded 2019, 2020 at Porcupine Studios, London
EMRCD082-3 2CDs [73:47, 75:30]

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