Overture, Plymouth Hoe
The Fringes of the Fleet [performing edition by Tom Higgins]*
Big Steamers [arranged Higgins for four unaccompanied baritones]‡
Elegy for Strings
Blow Out You Bugles‡ [both orchestrated Higgins]
A Manx Overture – The Isle of Mountains and Glens†
Big Steamers [orch. Higgins]‡
Overture, The Windjammer
Elizabeth of England#
Roderick Williams (solo baritone) with Nicholas Lester, Laurence Meikle & Duncan Rock (baritones)
Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded 9-10 May 2009, All Hallows Church, Gospel Oak, London
*First professional orchestral recording since 1917
‡Premiere recording of this arrangement
Reviewed by: Peter Joelson
Reviewed: December 2009
CD No: SOMM
Duration: 61 minutes
Elgar’s “The Fringes of the Fleet” makes it first reappearance in the catalogue since 1917. Tremendously popular during its brief existence, it was based on Rudyard Kipling’s collection of poems and prose with the same title, published in 1915. Elgar had set four of the poems to music for performances from 11 June 1917 at the London Coliseum, and later that month added the fifth song, a rare example of his writing for unaccompanied voices.
Tom Higgins has made his arrangements after comparing the scores in the British Library with the HMV recording made soon after the première and the end result presents a very strong piece of writing, so strong that one wonders why it has taken so long for a modern recording to appear. Part of the reason is due to Kipling’s preventing its performance after only a few months; while it was performed twice daily, conducted by Elgar, at the Coliseum and was toured, sometimes presented in music halls, tragedy befell the Kiplings when their son, Jack, was reported missing in action.
The four baritones blend together beautifully, the words coming across with clarity so that the full texts included in the booklet are hardly needed. ‘The Lowestoft Boat’ tells of a fishing-boat newly armed for active service and its characterful crew – “Her engineer is fifty-eight, so he’s prepared to meet his fate which ain’t unlikely…” certainly made me sit up in surprise – and the acerbic wit is nicely put over by the singers. ‘Fate’s Discourtesy’ is serious, almost hymn-like, ‘Submarines’ very dark, the sailors living in “the belly of Death”. ‘The Sweepers’ concerns gloominess and danger of dealing with mines. ‘Inside the Bar’, the fifth song, has words by Sir Gilbert Parker about inns and lasses and impresses with its a cappella construction, the four baritones caught superbly by the microphones and a joy to hear. The singers and Higgins steer a careful course between conjuring up the right atmosphere and the mawkish.
There are two versions of Kipling’s “Big Steamers”, sure to appeal to lovers of Masefield, too. Elgar’s version is arranged for four unaccompanied singers, while Sir Edward German’s and the remaining vocal works involve a solo baritone. Roderick Williams is surely one of Britain’s most eminent singers and his warmth of tone and careful attention to words is just right for all of these pieces. German’s “Big Steamers” lacks the intensity of experience of conditions of war and Williams’s pleasant lyrical style is apt for this more innocent song. John Ireland’s two songs are settings of poetry by Rupert Brooke and are presented in sympathetic orchestrations by Tom Higgins. Brooke had died in 1915 and Williams presents the poignancy of “If I should die, think only this of me…” very movingly.
The programme also includes orchestral works, all fine examples of British Light Music. John Ansell (1874-1948) is represented by two overtures, Plymouth Hoe and Windjammer, two pieces of maritime writing. The first of these opens the disc and sets the scene with some dapper, disciplined and unbuttoned playing from the Guildford Philharmonic and Tom Higgins. It’s fitting to remember, too, Haydn Wood (1882-1959) in the 50th-anniversary of his death; a versatile composer, his big hit during the First World War was the song “Roses of Picardy” but he was also well-known for concertos and orchestral works the latter often including a ‘big tune’ of Elgarian stature. The performance of Elgar’s Elegy for Strings opens plainly but the atmosphere and tension in this miniature build up satisfyingly.
The recording sounds very well indeed; recorded in the ample acoustic of All Hallows Church, the music is given space to breathe, yet the engineers have preserved the clarity Higgins and the singers strove to achieve. The booklet includes an excellent essay by Robert Matthew-Walker, and there are two evocative photographs of the original 1917 production of “The Fringes of the Fleet”. HMV’s 1917 recording is available for comparison on Dutton CDP9777 (“British composers conduct on acoustic”).
Roderick Williams is always a pleasure to listen to, and coupled with such fine playing from the Guildford Philharmonic under Tom Higgins, this release from Somm of valuable premieres is welcomed wholeheartedly.