Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad [A. E. Housman]: Loveliest of trees; When I was one-and-twenty; Look not in my eyes; Think no more, lad; The lads in their hundreds; Is my team ploughing?
Haste on, my joys! [Robert Seymour Bridges]
Eleven Folk Songs from Sussex: Yonder stands a lovely creature; A blacksmith courted me; A lawyer he went out;Come my own one; A brisk young sailor courted me; Tarry trowsers; Sowing the seeds of love; The cuckoo; Seventeen come Sunday; Roving in the dew; The true lover’s farewell
I will make you brooches [Robert Louis Stevenson]
Love blows as the wind blows [William Ernest Henley]: In the year that’s come and gone; Life in her creaking shoes; Fill a glass with golden wine; On the way to Kew
I fear thy kisses [Percy Bysshe Shelley]
Requiescat [Oscar Wilde]
Bredon Hill; Oh fair enough are sky and plain; When the lad for longing sighs; On the idle hill of summer; With rue my heart is laden [Housman]
Bonus Film: George Butterworth Dancing
Mark Stone (baritone) & Stephen Barlow (piano)
Recorded 8-10 December 2009 in the Music Room, Champs Hill, West Sussex, UK
Reviewed by: Richard Nicholson
Reviewed: April 2010
CD No: STONE RECORDS
Duration: 71 minutes
Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow here continue their exploration of English song on Stone’s own label. With the first volume of a complete Quilter edition and a miscellany of love-songs already under their belts they deploy their combined artistry in this survey of the surviving works in the genre by George Butterworth (1885-1916), which will assuredly warm the hearts of the composer’s supporters and generate a positive response from those coming upon his work for the first time.
Butterworth’s settings of poems from “A Shropshire Lad” are widely known and the programme is topped and tailed by the two A. E. Housman collections. Sandwiched between them the eleven arrangements of Folk Songs collected in Sussex are divided into those collected at Billingshurst and those originating elsewhere in the county. Dotted in at regular intervals are the individual songs which survive.The Henley cycle “Love blows as the wind blows”, composed for voice and string quartet, with three of the songs later being arranged for chamber orchestra, is here performed in a version for voice and piano which the notes rather enigmatically states may be by Vaughan Williams. These are among the thirteen songs which are here receiving their world premiere recordings.
Male singers from the English cathedral tradition can have a dryness of sound and a lack of passion in expression but neither claim can be made of Mark Stone. Technically he is admirable, with the registers fully integrated. The resonant core of the voice can be carried upwards evenly to convey powerful emotions without coarsening, while the transition to a sweet head-voice can be effected by what sound satisfyingly natural means. Butterworth’s original song-writing benefits greatly from the singer’s ability to respond to the suggestions of vocal colour in word-setting which is rich in nuance.
A fine example of how Stone’s vocal security supports his expressive ideas is the first of the Henley settings. The length of several of its phrases goes unnoticed, so sure and trouble-free is his breath control. Then, in the last verse, the title phrase and its continuation “In the year that’s come and gone, in the golden weather” is effortlessly succeeded by a mood-changing opening to the following line “Sweet, my sweet, we swore…”, the D taken in a heartfelt mezza voce.
The isolated songs don’t get a good report, even from Mark Stone in his booklet-note. The early “Haste on, my joys” is certainly slight but a copy has survived the bonfire that the composer made of his juvenilia in 1915. A good case is made for “I will make you brooches” which inevitably has an uphill struggle in rivalling the version by Vaughan Williams, as Stone admits. Nevertheless, they make a strong case for it. The dotted rhythm in the accompaniment may not match the breathlessness of the rival version’s opening but it does give unity to the song. Stone identifies powerfully with the proud traveller, conveying his unrefined artlessness; after the hiatus preceding the last verse he puffs out his chest and jubilantly proclaims the value of the peripatetic lifestyle.
“Requiescat” is a setting of Oscar Wilde’s elegiac poem on the death of his younger sister. A sentimental trifle, one might say, but Stone and Barlow devote considerable artistry to its setting. The text is truly enhanced by their contrast between the girl’s peace and the poet’s suffering, searingly conveyed. Stone hardens his tone vividly at “Coffin-board, heavy stone, lie on her breast”.
The performance of the Housman settings ranks with the best of the existing recordings. The difficult opening of ‘Loveliest of trees’, with its exposed top E, does not have its sense of wonder compromised by concerns over pitch or tone quality. Furthermore, Stone treats the opening salute not as an isolated highlight but as an initial impression of delight, which then expands in the following phrases into a flood of joy and admiration. The two performers bring out the duality which is present in these six songs. The poetic Lad of the opening song and of ‘Look not in my eyes’ is strongly contrasted with the over-confident character embodied in the bright tone and assertive delivery of ‘When I was one-and-twenty’. Even if he accepts his adviser’s warning it is at first flippantly; only in Butterworth’s extra repetition of “It’s true” does he see the light.In ‘Think no more, lad’ he is once again scornful of caution, with thoughts of death present but dispersed, to return in the last two songs but in contrasted moods. Singer and pianist create a clear texture throughout “The lads in their hundreds”; Stone delivers the text with proudly smiling tone, his line turning liquid as the phrases rise, rather in the manner of Benjamin Luxon. Death is not a pre-occupation but a shadow on the consciousness, hinted at in the subtle rallentandos which the artists apply at “they will not return” and again in the final stanza. In setting ‘Is my team ploughing?’ with such strophic simplicity, Butterworth has left performers virtually unlimited opportunities for interpretation. Stone’s living protagonist is uncouth, his utterances verging on the raucous, bustling the ghost along, as if thereby hoping to avoid the embarrassing question about his girl.
The second set of Housman settings gives an impression of greater compositional boldness and a more progressive musical style. Butterworth demands vocal strength and a wide range, taking the baritone up to F sharp and G in the two best known songs ‘Bredon Hill’ and ‘On the idle hill of summer’. Stone takes the high notes in his stride. He characterises individual words without making it a mannerism: witness the emphasis on the word “drown” in ‘Oh fair enough are sky and plain’ and the sneer with which he utters “A silly lad” in the same song. There is much use of rubato and thoughtful execution of hairpin dynamics.
The recording is over-resonant, which rebounds against Stephen Barlow on occasions: in ‘Loveliest of trees’ the climactic passage comparing the cherry blossom with an Easter congregation’s white clothing becomes congested and the piano’s treble notes uncomfortably distorted, with the latter fault also appearing twice damagingly in ‘On the idle hill of summer’. Elsewhere Barlow is a sovereign accompanist. Butterworth’s accompaniments have been described as “simple” and “uncluttered” but in Barlow’s hands they demand attention. So often they set a mood or provide a commentary in the manner of the greatest song-writers. Elaborate late-nineteenth-century romantic postludes may be eschewed by the composer, paralleling Housman’s preference for a spare, uncomplicated verbal style, but in several of these songs the pianist keeps us hanging on for his final contribution in a sequence of simple but long drawn-out chords. In ‘Is my team ploughing?’ and ‘When the lad for longing sighs’ it is a single bass note which eventually resolves the message; in others the ending is inconclusive.
The folksong arrangements paint some vivid pictures: the prim, talkative girl in “Yonder stands a lovely creature”, the bluff sailor in “Come my own one”, which also has a brilliantly infectious piano part and the philosophising of “The cuckoo” stand out particularly.
There is a bonus track, the equivalent of a home-movie of George Butterworth as Morris Dancer, captured about 1912, in Quicktime format for playing on a computer. He moves with vigour and obvious commitment.
This release will certainly reward those who seek to get to know Butterworth’s surviving song output; it could not have better all-round advocates. Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow clearly have a great investment in the composer and his music, which extends to the handsome booklet, with its detailed and illuminating analysis of each song.