E. J. Moeran – Complete Solo Songs [Geraldine McGreevy, Adrian Thompson, Roderick Williams & John Talbot/Chandos]

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E. J. Moeran
Spring goeth all in white; When June is come [Robert Seymour Bridges]
Mantle of Blue [Padraic Colum]
Twilight [John Edward Masefield]

Ludlow Town [Alfred Edward Housman: When smoke stood up from Ludlow; Farewell to barn and stack and tree; Say, lad, have you things to do?; The lads in their hundreds]

Two Songs [The Bean Flower (Dorothy Leigh Sayers); Impromptu in March (Doreen A. E. Wallace)]

In Youth is Pleasure [Robert Wever]
The Merry Month of May [Thomas Dekker]
A Dream of Death [William Butler Yeats]
Come Away, Death [William Shakespeare]
Troll the Bowl [Thomas Dekker]
Can’t You Dance the Polka! [Sea shanty, author anonymous*]
Mrs Dyer, the Baby Farmer [Victorian crime ballad, author anonymous*]
Maltworms [attrib. William Stevenson]

Seven Poems by James Joyce [Strings in the earth and air; The Merry Green Wood; Bright cap; The Pleasant Valley; Donnycarney; Rain has fallen; Now, O now, in this brown land]

When I came last to Ludlow; ‘Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town; Far in a western brookland; Loveliest of trees; Oh fair enough are sky and plain [three versions] [Alfred Edward Housman]

Weep you no more [sixteenth century, author anonymous]
The Sweet o’ the Year [William Shakespeare]
The Day of Palms [Arthur William Symons]
Blue-eyed Spring [Robert Nichols]
Rosefrail; Tilly; Rahoon [James Joyce]

Four English Lyrics [Cherry Ripe (Thomas Campion); Willow Song (John Fletcher); The Constant Lover (William Browne); The Passionate Shepherd (Christopher Marlowe)]

Four Shakespeare Songs [The Lover and his Lass; Where the bee sucks; When daisies pied; When icicles hang by the wall]

Diaphenia [Henry Chettle or Henry Constable]
Rosaline [Thomas Lodge]
The Monk’s Fancy [Henry J. Hope]
Invitation in Autumn; If There Be Any Gods [Seumas O’Sullivan]

Six Poems of Seumas O’Sullivan [Evening; The Poplars;A Cottager; The Dustman; Lullaby; The Herdsman]

Geraldine McGreevy (soprano), Adrian Thompson (tenor),Roderick Williams (baritone) & John Talbot (piano) [with members of Weybridge Male Voice Choir*]

Recorded in Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School, Stoke d’Abernon, Cobham, Surrey, England – 8, 9 & 11 September 2008 (songs for baritone), 20 & 22 January 2009 (tenor) and 8, 14 & 16 April 2009 (soprano)


Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: June 2010
CD No: CHANDOS
CHAN 10596 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 59 minutes

E. J. (Ernest John) Moeran’s published oeuvre contains a great deal of vocal music but Chandos, which recorded his symphony, concertos, various orchestral and chamber works and two works for four-part chorus in the 1980s, has left it until now to commit his songs for voice and piano to record. This may suggest that the songs are not counted among his most important works; it certainly reflects their rarity on recital programmes. Moeran (1894-1950), who thought them the best area of his work, would probably be frustrated by their neglect but gratified by this integral recording (not entirely “complete”, with the omission of some early Housman settings and the composer’s earliest known surviving song, a recent discovery). Sixteen songs (of the fifty-eight included here) are recorded for the first time.

The most-set poet in this collection, as so often with English song composers, is A. E. Housman. Moeran’s talents are not done justice to by his Housman settings. The early songs are clearly experimental. In “Ludlow Town” the composer has to cope with extended five-line stanzas and the piano part can be heard echoing the vocal phrases, as well as enacting the narrative incidents, not very convincingly. ‘The lads in their hundreds’ devotes too much time to the hearty outdoor gathering and only hints at the fate of the young men.

There is considerable in-breeding in twentieth-century English song, with texts set by several different composers. In Moeran’s case he competes with contemporaries and, in the case of Peter Warlock, with a close friend and drinking companion. Of course he has a lot of competition, in the case of “Loveliest of trees” more than thirty rival versions. His 1931 setting is not as successful as George Butterworth’s. The latter plays his trump card immediately, lingering in wonder on the first word and Moeran never catches up, even if the beauty of the blossom and the poet’s sense of time slipping away are viscerally communicated.

The songs are presented in more or less chronological order of composition and each of the two discs works towards a major sequence (the word “cycle” seems not quite right). From his first surviving effort in 1916 to the encounter with Peter Warlock, Moeran’s chosen texts are the work of contemporary poets. Of the early songs I am quite taken with the setting of “Impromptu in March” by Doreen A. E. Wallace. The accompaniment is inventive and varied, the woman’s hostility to the month of March depicted in clashing chords, succeeded by a trotting rhythm with a nice imitation of the castanets mentioned in the text before she is pacified by the offer of spring flowers and a gentle echo of those early chords closes a neat circle.

Contemporary English verse virtually disappears as from 1925 as Moeran turns to sixteenth-century writers. His first two efforts dating from 1925 are ”In youth is pleasure”, a modified strophic song, and an exuberant “The Merry Month of May”. The first Shakespeare setting, “Come away, death” is a promising effort, the dotted rhythm popping up in all regions of the piano part, while the melody is shaped unexpectedly at the conclusion of the song. The two sets – “Four English Lyrics” and “Four Shakespeare Songs” – are a consummation of this interest in Elizabethan poetry but they vary in impact here because of differing standards of vocalism.

The three singers represent two hits and one miss. Roderick Williams, who has the lion’s share of the work, has a cleanly focused sound, enunciates the poetic texts with clarity, if occasionally fringing on the style of a well-scrubbed gentleman of the English upper-classes, with a tendency to emotional coolness. Adrian Thompson is quite the opposite of Williams, eager to seize any opportunity that presents itself to project intense feeling. Some of the climaxes he creates thereby suffer from unsteady tone, unpleasantly so in the outer songs of the madrigal-like “Four English Lyrics”. No qualifications are needed when Thompson deploys his liquid lyrical sound in restrained soft singing, as in “Weep you no more” (Moeran’s “Nacht und Träume” as it were) or the separate Seumas O’Sullivan song “Invitation in Autumn”, but neither Heddle Nash, dedicatee of “Diaphenia” nor Parry Jones, for whom “Four English Lyrics” and two other songs were written, had greater control of their vibrato than Thompson.

Geraldine McGreevy has a voice of intrinsically noble quality, which reminds of no-one more than Janet Baker. Its glowing quality readily adds a moving dose of melancholy as it ascends the scale. Interpretatively, its range of colours enables her to inhabit whatever emotional world the composer creates for his interpreter. In the three separate James Joyce settings from “Pomes Penyeach” she fines her tone down for “Rosefrail” and injects passion into “Tilly”. “Rahoon”, written fifteen years later for Kathleen Ferrier, is a testing song in an advanced idiom.

In 1929 Irish poetry emerges as a source of inspiration. Moeran had Irish blood on his father’s side and indeed lived in rural Ireland periodically. The first text Moeran set by an Irish poet is W. B. Yeats’s “A Dream of Death”. The consistently constructed mournful mood and the very intensity of the epitaph he writes on the deceased’s memorial suggest close identification with the emotional content of the poem. Arguably the best of Moeran in this edition resides in the groups of settings of Irish poets. The “Seven Poems by James Joyce”, a distillation of Joyce’s volume of thirty-six short poems, “Chamber Music”, the subject of which is the poet’s developing relationship with his long-time partner Nora Barnacle. Joyce utilises Elizabethan poetic diction, which must have been an additional attraction for the composer.

Moeran makes a shrewd selection of seven poems which characterise different stages in the relationship and the feelings they evoke. Williams conveys the reverential attitude to music of the first song ‘Strings in the earth and air’, accompanying the first stirrings of love. His heart pounds in ‘The Merry Green Wood’ as the natural-world hails the capture of his heart, followed by the buoyant celebration of ‘Bright cap and streamers’. He has the requisite legato for the absorption of the two lovers in ‘The Pleasant Valley’. Then the poetry turns retrospective. ‘Donnycarney’ recreates the lingering impact of a single kiss. With ‘Rain has fallen’ autumn arrives, to the accompaniment of incessant drips and the summons to renew their love, before the separation of ‘Now, o now, in this brown land’; the melody moves uncertainly, providing awkward intervals here for the baritone and a top G in the final cadence which Williams takes with aplomb.

McGreevy is entrusted with the late (1946) group, “Six Songs of Seumas O’Sullivan”, all set in fading light or darkness. Her timbre is just right for the uncertain reflections of the first three of these poems. ‘Evening’ is a fine poem, its duality Moeran reflects in his flowing accompaniment and shifting vocal line interrupted by pauses for reflection in the stillness of twilight, McGreevy captures both the earthly familiarity of the landscape as experienced in encroaching darkness and the unanswered mystery of it. In ‘The Poplars’ the mystery deepens as the trees whisper an enigmatic message. In ‘A Cottager’ she is haunted by the passage of time. Her communication of the rueful refrain in this song could not be more tellingly sung. ‘The Dustman’ is a quite different kind of poem, the narrative of an inquisitive child. In conspicuously Irish idiom Moeran portrays her mischievously tiptoeing downstairs. Satisfying her curiosity at first changes to fright at the sight of the malevolent figure, towering from his seat on the cart and made even more intimidating by the shadows he casts. She scuttles back upstairs. The mother she plays in ‘Lullaby’ is strong and firm, devoid of sentimentality, as Moeran regresses to his more experimental style in the accompaniment. Omitting the final verse of the poem does cloud the message. Souvenirs of Moeran’s penchant for heavy drinking are present in the raucous pieces in which Williams is joined by members of the Weybridge Male Voice Choir and in “Troll the bowl”, all crushing chords and hearty rustic refrains, which is a twentieth-century take on a sixteenth-century drinking-song.

Moeran’s career had many barren years without the fruit of song and his settings are mainly short-winded: only one song lasts longer than four minutes and plenty occupy less than two. Listening to this set does not convince me that he was a natural songwriter His writing for the voice more often than not lacks memorability, though occasionally he can surprise the listener with a stroke of imagination which draws attention to particular elements of a text.

Moeran’s harmonic language is an acquired taste, eclectic but insular. He is something of a child of his time, with modal leanings, use of the pentatonic scale and even bitonality recognisable. John Talbot’s consistently sympathetic accompanying encompasses the range of the composer’s writing for the piano, from the progressive to the traditional. He is also the author of the admirable booklet-note.

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