A delightful mixture of repertoire is to be found on this recording of English songs, which covers a good number of the principal composers associated with the genre. Old favourites such as Vaughan Williams' Silent Noon, Gurney's Sleep and Quilter's Fair House of Joy have been recorded countless times, and one might question the need to revisit them, especially when there is so much of our native song heritage that receives less coverage on recordings. However, this disc is a personal selection by the singer, not a musicological showcase, and thankfully Lynne Dawson's performance justifies their inclusion. In Sleep the feeling of world-weariness is stunning, and the mezza voce note that concludes Silent Noon is magical, although it is sung here in the key of F major, losing some of the warm sonority of the piano's throbbing opening chords that one perceives in the original E-flat.
Across the breadth of the recording one is impressed by Dawson's control, something that affords her great flexibility in interpreting the texts. Her quiet singing is one of her greatest assets and relays an intensity of musical expression in songs such as Warlock's The Night that makes for effective conveyance of the poem. Elsewhere, songs such as Stanford's La Belle Dame sans merci require a wider range of dramatic presentation, which here falls short of Janet Baker's benchmark recording (EMI CDM 5 65009 2) – Dawson's reading of the most explicitly-dramatic verses (especially the tenth) lacks the sense of mood that makes Baker's account, whose mezzo colours allow a much more telling use of the chest voice at the line 'I saw their starved lips in the gloom', more gripping.
It is good to see that, in his centenary year, Gerald Finzi's songs are getting a wider exposure. The three on this recording are great examples of his art, although maybe curious choices, as two of them (Since we loved and As I lay in the early sun) are written from a male perspective. As I lay in the early sun here lacks the impassioned singing that is found in Ian Partridge's recording (Hyperion CDA 66015), but, as a payoff, gains a marvellous sense of timelessness through its relaxed tempo. Oh fair to see creates the perfect atmosphere to reflect the powerful simplicity of Christina Rossetti's words.
The shadow of folk music hangs over Warlock's Lillygay collection and Vaughan Williams' The lark in the clear air and Through bushes and briars. Dawson seems to have a great natural sympathy for this style and her narrative skill shines through. These songs also contrast well with the following group by Stanford, written under the pseudonym Karel Drofnatski, which is an altogether more humorous affair; the bare-faced cheek of The Compleat Virtuoso is guaranteed to bring a wry smile to the listener's face and the inclusion of the strange curiosity that is the short piano soloLimmerich ohne Worte shows Stanford to be a great wit.
The final collection is Britten's On this Island, which brings with it a freshness of musical language compared to the less 'modern' idioms preceding it. A wide experience of singing Baroque repertoire is apparent here in the ease with which Dawson negotiates the coloratura passages of Now the leaves are falling fast. Similarly impressive is the hushed control with which she delivers the long arched phrases of Nocturne. The bitter satirical taste of the final song of the cycle ends the recording in a style far removed from the cosiness of Warlock's My own country, which opened it twenty-seven songs previously, thus framing the range of musical expression it contains.
Malcolm Martineau, as always, provides exemplary accompaniment throughout. Examples of his innate sympathy towards singers are too numerous to mention, but one can hear it immediately in the various postludes; that of Let the florid music praise! creates a spellbinding summation of the preceding text, whereas Fair House of Joy closes with a resounding affirmation of the poet's dedication.
It is interesting to note that Martineau has already recorded a number of these songs with the soprano Sarah Leonard with similarly pleasing results (IMP Classics PCD 1029).
This disc can be heartily recommended to any lover of good singing and good music!
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