Songs of the Sea
La Belle Dame sans Merci
Songs of the Fleet [selections]
Blackmwore by the Stour
Three Poems by Walt Whitman
Songs of Travel
Anthony Michaels-Moore (baritone) & Michael Pollock (piano)
Recorded 4 & 5 January 2008 at St John’s, Smith Square, London
Reviewed by: Alex Peyton-Jones
Reviewed: March 2013
CD No: OPUS ARTE
OA CD9014 D
Duration: 70 minutes
A warm welcome for one of three first releases that finds Rosenblatt Recitals in partnership with Opus Arte, the Royal Opera’s recording label. The other initial issues are given to Ailyn Pérez and Lawrence Brownlee. Anthony Michaels-Moore and Michael Pollack have come up with a stimulating if unfashionable recital devoted to songs by Charles Villiers Stanford and Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Quite why the likeable and enjoyable Songs of the Sea are not performed more often, and can be derided in some quarters, is to be regretted. The five numbers of the cycle are alternately upbeat and lyrical, the words the backbone of the stirring and expressive music. Michaels-Moore brings admirable commitment to these delights and if some long-held notes display a slight ‘beat’ in his resonant baritone, then his enunciation is first-class, even at speed: English as it should be spoken. It’s very good that texts are included in the booklet, but Michaels-Moore makes them superfluous. The French-titled song, setting Keats, is a mellifluous beauty with urgent emotions. The three selections from Songs of the Fleet – a companion to the Sea cycle and also originally scored for baritone, chorus and orchestra to words by Henry Newbolt – are no less pictorial thanks to Michael-Moore’s vivid word-painting.
The Vaughan Williams items begin with Linden Lea, a perfect gem sensitively performed, to which the Walt Whitman-inspired cycle could not be more contrasted given the composer’s sparse yet potent response to ‘Nocturne’ (somewhat Hindemithian) in which Michaels-Moore assumes an appropriately darker timbre and an inwardness of expression that inveigles the listener into submitting. ‘A Clear Midnight’ shines translucent light through its slow, expressive hymnal, and which could easily pass for Gerald Finzi in its noble sentiment, and then ‘Joy, shipmate, joy’ resounds in optimism while the piano peals the pleasure of being bound on the open sea. As a bridge between the cordial charm of Linden Lea and the visionary music that Whitman inspired is Blackmwore by the Stour, simply strophic and unashamedly folksy, indeed it’s an arrangement of a Dorset folksong (hence the “mw” no doubt); nothing special but Michaels-Moore, wisely not adopting a ‘local’ accent, comes close to making it so.
Setting Robert Louis Stevenson, Songs of Travel opens with the proud trudge of ‘The Vagabond’ and goes on to explore many moods through lovely melody, vivid description and heartfelt harmonies, all ardently and sympathetically reciprocated by the singer. Maybe the cycle should end with ‘Bright is the ring of words’, a wonderful creation, but since 1960 has done so with ‘I have trod the upward and the downward slope’, which was added posthumously to the cycle when the manuscript was discovered in the composer’s papers; yet with Songs of Travel completed in 1904 Vaughan Williams had more than 50 years to ‘complete’ the work, re-writing the ultimate song if necessary if he thought it lost, but he did not do so. Nevertheless, the song’s sense of nostalgia is touching, and Michaels-Moore is a very distinguished interpreter of Songs of Travel.
I have not yet mentioned the pianist. Michael Pollack is first-rate both as an attentive accompanist and for when something assertively individual is called for. That said, he is, or can seem, just a little subservient at times; and, conversely, the singer can be over-generous with fortissimos and in being so can deflect the ear from his accompanist, which may be a miscalculation in the recorded balance or is an accurate reflection of the artists’ intentions. Recorded in 2008, and hanging around for a little over five years, with no home to go to, it seems that Ian Rosenblatt has been stockpiling recordings waiting for just the right moment. That has arrived and it’s good to have Anthony Michaels-Moore’s sovereign artistry captured in repertoire that he serves so well, for there is much here to relish and return to.