Songs by Bridge, Butterworth, Finzi, Gurney, Ireland, Rorem, Somervell, Vaughan Williams, Warlock and Weill, setting Belloc, Bridges, Coleridge, Harvey, Housman, Masefield, Shakespeare, Stevenson and Whitman
Simon Keenlyside (baritone) & Malcolm Martineau (piano)
Recorded 14-17 February 2011 in Potton Hall, Suffolk, England
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: November 2011
CD No: SONY CLASSICAL
Duration: 73 minutes
The handsome, burnished baritone of Simon Keenlyside brings out the nobility of these English-language settings. Such a cultivated singer could scarcely do otherwise. Songs of War is a personal selection by the singer, and it shares seventeen of its twenty-nine titles with Bryn Terfel’s 1995 collection of English favourites, The Vagabond (Deutsche Grammophon). As then, Malcolm Martineau is the accompanist. More than anything, this stirring Songs of War release is elevated to a rarefied plane by inclusions such as three Walt Whitman settings from America and some exquisite miniatures by Frank Bridge (Coleridge’s Thy Hand In Mine), Gerald Finzi (Shakespeare’s Fear No More The Heat O’ The Sun) and John Ireland (Masefield’s Sea Fever). There are also three songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Although the album’s title and evocative cover-photograph recall the Great War, there are songs here (as Keenlyside concedes in his written note) for which that association is tenuous at best. No matter: together they make for a satisfying recital. The two stanchions are George Butterworth’s A. E. Housman settings: the ever-popular A Shropshire Lad and, at the disc’s heart in more ways than one, his marvellous other settings of the poet, collected by Butterworth (but not by Sony, which fails to connect them in its track listing) as Bredon Hill and Other Songs. Indelible and deceptively simple, these are proper art songs. ‘Bredon Hill’ itself has a sensational piano part that evokes mood and place while complementing and partnering the vocal drama, whereas the closing setting, ‘With Rue My Heart Is Laden’, is a devastating four-line epilogue: short, stark, haunting and heartbreaking.
The two Ivor Gurney choices are a disappointment. When Death to Either Shall Come is slight and unmemorable, while the more familiar In Flanders has a problem with its ungainly repetition of “Cotswold” – a virtually non-singable collision of consonants (although it will seldom have been rendered more persuasively than here). Keenlyside’s timbre would be ideally suited to some of Gurney’s stronger music: his neglected cycle The Western Playland is an alternative Housman epic and one that shares several texts with Butterworth. Arthur Somervell (yet another setter of A Shropshire Lad, and the earliest of all the composers who chanced upon these poems) fares better: the insouciant horror of There Pass the Careless People and the melodic elegance of White in the Moon show this composer at his best; the ra-ta-ta-ta of The Street Sounds to the Soldiers’ Tread less so. This disappointing track is also the album’s one isolated blip both for Keenlyside (sounding tired) and Martineau (clangorous).
Amid all the stoic Englishness, Ned Rorem’s bold setting of an even bolder text, Walt Whitman’s An Incident, is a harrowing reminder of war in all its foul, dignity-stripping reality. For two minutes the listener’s ears are scalded by Martineau’s attack and seared by the song’s horrific word-painting. It is opera in miniature, and properly distressing. Keenlyside’s traversal of humanity’s darkest legacy ends with a valuable pair of Whitman settings by Kurt Weill. The nightmarish Beat! Beat! Drums! has a cynical musical-theatre edge that contrasts brusquely with the courageous despair of Dirge for Two Veterans, a tragic portrait of two victim-brothers whose “double grave awaits them.” The booklet includes the sung texts.