Songs for Baritone, Piano and String Quartet
Martin Oxenham (Baritone), Katharine Durran (Piano)
The Bingham String Quartet

Every so often one comes across a recording which has long been available but has somehow failed to attract much notice or be widely subscribed by record stores, and yet on investigation proves to be a complete revelation. What better for a reviewer than to revisit it with all the benefits of hindsight. Such a CD, issued in 1994, is baritone Martin Oxenham's Meridian programme of little known songs for baritone and string quartet with or without piano (or in one case just piano) by British composers, the title number, Sir Henry Walford Davies's nineties setting of Browning's Prospice, particularly rewarding.

Prospice is the earliest of these gems, dating from 1894, when Walford Davies would soon end his time as a student at the RCM. So music written with all the vitality and freshness of early manhood, but in no sense prentice-work; Walford Davies demonstrates an imaginative mastery of his chosen medium in a work which has a unique personality of its own, and at its date must surely have struck his contemporaries as impressive, and innovative in the forces employed.

While the Walford Davies is certainly the plum of this collection for me, the others are pretty good too. Butterworth's Love Blows as the Wind Blows and Vaughan Williams's Five Mystical Songs were both completed around 1912. The latter, though familiar in its choral-orchestral colours, is unknown in this version for similar forces to On Wenlock Edge. Later came Somervell's A Broken Arc and still later, after two world wars, Geoffrey Bush's cycle of six songs Farewell, Earth's Bliss.

The impact and concision of Prospice, and the eloquence of the quartet writing reminded me of Samuel Barber's Dover Beach, written 35 years on, with which it would make an ideal coupling on concert programmes.

Sir Henry Walford Davies has been almost forgotten, Solemn Melody and RAF March Past are still heard occasionally, but his big choral works, extensive orchestral music and even his once ubiquitous church music forgotten. His fame as a broadcaster, the first radio populariser of music, died with him in 1941.

It all needs revisiting, but even so, the power and eloquence of this early setting - lasting just on ten minutes - is entirely unexpected; one is surely not being too extravagant in describing it as an unknown late-Victorian masterpiece. If one mutters 'Brahmsian' at the melifluous opening string melody, that really only defines a starting point, for Walford Davies soon builds a remarkably gripping little drama, which baritone Martin Oxenham seems securely inside, the whole given an enormous span by its composer's vivid handling of his forces. The urgency of the first vocal entry proclaims a young man who had recently experienced an all too real brush with his own mortality, though in fact he would live for another 47 years. Thoroughly recommended.

Browning also provides the dramatic text for Arthur Somervell's totally unknown narrative cycle of eight songs A Broken Arc, for voice and piano, which must challenge his more familiar cycle Maud for pride of place among his songs, though one would never guess it was published as late as 1923 - it could well be a backward-looking work from the 1890s, or at least Edwardian days. Here for his text Somervell ranges across Browning's lyrics, both familiar and not so well-known. This story of jealousy, the man who shoots his friend on suspicion of his liaison with his lady love, is vividly handled. Least good is the last song, a final setting of one of Browning's most familiar lyrics 'The year's at the spring' which is far too careful to express the youthful ecstasy of the words, and its place in the cycle makes Somervell's intention difficult to read - it is surely ironically.

From that richly burgeoning pre-Great War period we also have two more familiar scores - Butterworth's delightful Love Blows as the Wind Blows and Vaughan Williams's Five Mystical Songs. In the chamber version of Love Blows as the Wind Blows, Butterworth's cycle has a fourth song, 'Fill a glass with golden wine' not present in the orchestral version (recorded by Stephen Varcoe on Chandos CHAN 8743). I must say I like the added colour that the full orchestra brings to this work, yet, in the shadow of On Wenlock Edge, the string quartet version with the addition of Butterworth's bittersweet setting of 'Fill a glass', in this eloquent reading brings real rewards, while the quartet's figuration evoking the river boat's engine in 'On the Way to Kew' is charmingly done, the perfect foil underlining the singer's lightness of touch in these atmospheric songs.

RVW's Five Mystical Songs set for baritone and piano sextet - no chorus, no orchestra - is good too. It was an inspiration to dig out RVW's own chamber version of this evergreen work. Heard like this it is a lovely score in its own right, but really puts the soloist into the spotlight - here perhaps a little bland, or is that a concomitant of the chamber music scale and the forces used? Whatever it is still a sweet discovery.

In this company, Geoffrey Bush's lyrical Farewell, Earth's Bliss, six setting of early seventeenth century lyrics, completed in 1950, must have seemed backward-looking in its pastoral aesthetic and approach, though with memorable invention. And yet this is in its own way a gritty and penetrating score. Bush's familiar happy knack of finding a memorable phrase or rhythm in fast songs is every bit in evidence here in jaunty settings of Dekker's 'O, the month of May' and Edwardes's 'When May is in His Prime'. Yet slow music predominates and as the last song, a setting of Herrick's 'Fair pledges of a fruitful tree' is elaborated into an extended and intense climax we are reminded that it was first heard only five years after the end of the War.

This is a most enjoyable exploration of some worthwhile repertoire not easily found elsewhere: I urge you to search it out while it is still available.

Lewis Foreman 
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