Songs by Michael Head [Ailish Tynan, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, Roderick Williams & Christopher Glynn; Hyperion]

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Michael Head
Dear delight [Walter de la Mare]
Oh, for a March wind [Winifred Williams]
Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad [W. H. Davies]
Tewkesbury Road (John Masefield)
The Estuary [Ruth Pitter]
Limehouse Reach [C. Fox Smith]
Over the Rim of the Moon [Francis Ledwige: The ships of Arcady; Beloved; A blackbird singing; Nocturne]
October Valley [Nancy Bush]
The Garden Seat [Thomas Hardy]
Foxgloves [Mary Webb]
The Viper [Ruth Pitter]
Had I a golden pound [Francis Ledwige]
Lean out of the window [James Joyce]
A Piper [Seumas O’Sullivan]
A Green Cornfield [Christina Rossetti]
Love’s Lament [Christina Rossetti]
Star Candles [Margaret Rose]
The little road to Bethlehem [Margaret Rose]
Money, O! [W. H. Davies]
Three Songs of Venice [Nancy Bush: The Gondolier; St. Mark’s Square; Rain storm]
My sword for the King [Helen Taylor]
You cannot dream things lovelier [Humbert Wolfe]

Ailish Tynan (soprano), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (mezzo-soprano), Roderick Williams (baritone) & Christopher Glynn (piano)

Recorded 8-9 July 2009 & 22 January 2010 in Concert Hall, Wyastone Estate, Monmouth

Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson

Reviewed: January 2012
Duration: 76 minutes



Whenever I have come across the songs of Michael Head I have been left wondering why we don’t hear more of his work for solo voice and piano. Michael Dewar Head (1900-76), a man of Kent, cannot be classed as a musical dilettante, which might explain the lack of esteem and consequential neglect. He was a star pupil at London’s Royal Academy of Music and later Professor of Piano there. More likely may be his chosen method of performing his songs, to his own accompaniment, which he initiated at the suggestion of Sir George Henschel. Reynaldo Hahn did the same; he has acquired a reputation as a musical lightweight and the two may not be unconnected.

The late Trevor Hold, in his indispensable book on English song composers from Parry to Finzi, refers to Head only in passing, as he does with composers such as Maud Valerie White and Amy Woodforde-Finden. Their association with the drawing-room has doubtless tarnished their reputations. Michael Head was a master of many styles, including the Edwardian taste for songs of slight musical pretensions. Some of the settings in this Hyperion collection do nod in that direction but to consign him to that pigeonhole would be a grave injustice.

Writers of English Art-Song tend to fall into three categories: those who composed in the genre throughout their career (Parry, Stanford, Quilter, Gurney and Warlock), those whose song-writing only occupied them for quite a brief slot of their composing career (Bridge, Bax) and those whose lives were curtailed, of whom the victims of the Great War are the most prominent examples. Head belongs in the first group. He had a long composing career. He died in 1976, still in harness, as it were; the Three Songs of Venice dedicated to Janet Baker were completed within two years of his death.

His eclecticism is represented here by two Christmas carols for children, Star Candles and The little road to Bethlehem, songs in quasi-folksong style, Limehouse Reach and Foxgloves, and settings of Irish verse which adopt an Irish musical manner, Had I a golden pound. Yet one song from the latter category demonstrates how misleading it is to underestimate this composer: superficially the bouncy vocal line and dancing accompaniment of A Piper seem to suggest Head lowering his sights but the chromatic asperity of the word-setting testify to a much greater musical imagination at work.

Among the more substantial works there is plenty of evidence to correct the impression that Head was a backward-looking composer. The Viper opens with a highly dissonant prelude and the vocal style is a free parlando. Nevertheless in the opening song of the collection, Dear delight, we hear how fertile was his melodic inspiration, how lyrical his response to feelings of love when presented with suitable material, as he is here by Walter de la Mare’s fine poem.

There are some trivia here but also evidence that at any stage of his adult life Head could write progressive, eloquent music to illuminate poetry and to unite voice and piano in a rewarding and expressive exercise. Among the first published songs here are four settings of the Irish poet Francis Ledwige, published in 1919 and 1920 grouped under the title Over the rim of the moon. They are notably contrasted. The setting of ‘The ships of Arcady’ takes its cue from the repeated appearance of the word “filigree”, the voice reduced to a mere thread of tone over trudging chords, returning to repeat the opening stanza after the ships briefly materialise. ‘Beloved’ is an exuberant declaration of love, ending triumphantly with an assurance of the poet’s constancy, Head’s Zueignung as it were. The emotional mood changes to one of dejection in ‘A blackbird singing’ as he fears losing his beloved, while ‘Nocturne’ confounds expectations: no consolation here and no lyricism either but the ingredients of an operatic scena, declamatory utterances from the singer seconded by dramatic accompanying figures. The song ends in emotional paralysis.

Hyperion has chosen its singers from the first-eleven of contemporary talent in the British Isles. Ailish Tynan, a BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Song Prize winner, is the possessor of a pure, creamy soprano with plenty of operatic potential. She rises to the challenge of the Ledwige group, manoeuvring her voice sensitively around the pallet of colours required by words and music. She successfully negotiates a high tessitura in several of her allotted songs. My only reservation is that the intrinsic vibrancy of her sound sometimes clouds the words.

That cannot be said about Catherine Wyn-Rogers. Here we have an under-recorded artist grabbing her opportunity in the songs allotted to her. October Valley was written for Kathleen Ferrier. Nancy Bush’s poem is an atmospheric picture of the natural background to late autumnal labour. The voice is kept in restraint, often descending into the dark recesses of the contralto register, the final words “blooms and fades” repeated softly as if receding into the distance. Head’s setting of Hardy’s The Garden Seat also exploits the singer’s mournful tone and her ability to project a facial expression. Her vision of the seat’s ghostly occupants sends a sympathetic shiver down the back and the way she leans on the leading note in the final line is equally vivid.

Another song from Head’s late-teens is Love’s lament, a threnody to a poem by Christina Rossetti. The poet protests that her lost subject should have been born in spring and died in autumn, so that nature would have been in alignment with the mood. The vocal part is dominated by a lamenting downward scale ranging to a tenth. Other rather arbitrary gestures in the accompaniment betray the composer’s naiveté at this stage in word-setting. Wyn-Rogers is noble of tone and again conveys details of emotional mood.

Roderick Williams is predominantly given the vigorous, lusty songs. In Tewkesbury Road he plays the role of the lover of the outdoor life rather in the manner of Vaughan Williams’s Vagabond, the furious pounding in the piano’s bass omnipresent, reflecting the defiance of Masefield’s verse. The clarity of Williams’s enunciation, without a hint of coarseness, ideally projects the poet’s sincerity. Among the other characters he portrays are some equally down-to-earth. We meet homespun wisdom in Money, O! and pugnacity in My sword for the king. He is equally convincing in the folksong style of Limehouse Reach, the voice smiling with the resignation at losing his love to another and impressive in The viper, with its analogy in appearance and behaviour between the snake and a woman.

That is not the whole story, however. Williams proves himself a fine interpreter of The Estuary, in which Ruth Pitter depicts the return of a large ship along the channel as the tide comes in. He begins in mezza voce, supported only by a three-note ostinato figure. The texture gradually thickens and the singing becomes more forthright as the ship glides ever-closer, disrupting the serenity of the scene. In the final stanza the music returns to its originally tranquil character as the poet declares that this image will endure in his memory. This is a fine example of the command of structure for which Head should be better appreciated. The arching shape of several of these songs is characteristic of him.

That Head maintained his skills as a composer to the end of his life is demonstrated by the cycle to words by Nancy Bush, Three Songs of Venice, composed in 1974 for Janet Baker and sung here by Catherine Wyn-Rogers with a distinction worthy of the dedicatee. The centre-piece is the largely strophic ‘St Mark’s Square’ in which the piano part conveys the fluttering of a flock of pigeons and the clangour of bells in the opening two stanzas before the singer leaves these superficialities behind, to be replaced by aesthetic matters, the glory of the city’s architecture and its history. The other two poems have a largely free vocal line. In ‘The Gondolier’ the poet is in the boat itself, fascinated by the boatman as he guides the vessel, momentarily panicked by the aspect of the tall buildings, then impressed by the gondolier’s call and its short-lived echo, an emblem of human existence. Throughout the piano weaves its contrapuntal strands to represent the lapping water. ‘Rain storm’ portrays the bleakness of the city in early autumn but ends with a further declaration of its enduring beauty.

The piano parts are not always as organically reflective of a song’s meaning as they are in the Venice triptych but Christopher Glynn’s playing is a major factor in the impact of all these settings. The voices are slightly favoured and the recording tends towards the intimate rather than a concert-hall ambience. The booklet note by Andrew Burn could not be bettered. Head’s musical career is summarised, his personality assessed, the texts he set placed in literary context and the musical setting of each song succinctly analysed. Burn leads the listener on a journey through this, to most, unfamiliar territory with thorough knowledge of his subject but without partisanship.

Hyperion’s song catalogue is vast. It encompasses not only complete sets of the major masters (its Schubert edition must surely rank alongside the pioneering Decca/Solti ‘Ring’ as one of recording’s iconic achievements). Obscure composers of Art Song have valuable single-disc selections or are included in compilations. Already such figures as Charles Orr, Denis Browne and Armstrong Gibbs are represented in the Hyperion catalogue. Now Michael Head joins them. The range of Head’s song-writing is well illustrated by this selection, roughly a quarter of his output. On the evidence of this enterprising and welcome release, his inclusion is overdue.

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