HERACLEITUS / GURNEY: Ludlow and Teme*+#. String Quartet in D min: Adagio#. The Cloths of Heaven*+. Severn Meadows*+. By a Bierside*+. BUTTERWORTH: Bredon Hill and Other Songs*+. Suite for String Quartet#. Love Blows as the Wind Blows (excerpts)*+. WARLOCK: Saudades: Heracleitus*+. Sweet Content*+ / *Charles Daniels, tenor; +Michael Dussek, pianist; #Bridge String Quartet / EM Records EMRCD036
Here is a recital of early Vaughan Williams-like pieces for tenor, piano and string quartet by a trio of British composers, namely Ivor Gurney, George Butterworth and Peter Warlock (aka Philip Heseltine). Warlock I knew, but this was my first exposure to the music of Gurney and only my second to Butterworth.
As I say, however, the pieces chosen for this recital are all in that British-influenced-by-French-impressionism style that many listeners are familiar with from Vaughan Williams’ great early song cycle, On Wenlock Edge. Gurney’s style is a bit more adventurous harmonically than Vaughan Williams, and at least in the first, third and fourth songs of Ludlow and Teme a bit more rhythmic. But there were weak moments, too, such as the second song in this cycle, “Far in a Western brookland,” which suffered from a poor melody and unimaginative string writing. But the Bridge String Quartet is a very fine aggregation, as one can clearly hear in their performances of the “Adagio” from Gurney’s String Quartet in D minor and the complete Butterworth Suite for Quartet. That being said, I found the Butterworth Suite rather innocuous and only mildly interesting.
On the other hand, Warlock’s music—particularly Heracleitus—was just as riveting as I recalled from his many other pieces, and here both Daniels and the quartet rise to the occasion with a deeply heartfelt performance. Sweet Content is in Warlock’s “other” style, e.g. his Renaissance-song imitation style, and this is meat and potatoes to Daniels. The two excerpts from Butterworth’s Love Blows as the Wind Blows are also excellent music.
I was delighted to hear that our tenor, Charles Daniels, has a firm, clear voice and equally clear diction, although in the end I realized that his voice was a bit thin in tone, its sound enhanced by what can only be described as “empty locker room” reverb around both him and the instruments, but mostly around him. This is not, however, to denigrate his accomplishments here. Vocal size has never been, for me, a determining factor in whether or not a singer is great; musicality, phrasing and interpretation often override the sheer size of a voice. Bethany Beardslee, Tito Schipa and Paul Sperry were never going to overwhelm one’s eardrums, yet they are all among my favorite singers. As it turns out, Daniels is the lead tenor (and ofttimes soloist) with The King’s Singers, which I’ve heard several times. Daniels’ voice is more exposed in the sparsely written Butterworth grouping with piano, and here he shows just what a fine artist he is, wrapping his voice around each word and projecting both mood and high musicianship.
The recital closes with three Gurney songs in which Daniels is accompanied solely by piano, poetic and quite beautiful. Gurney, considered a poet as well as a musician, suffered a severe mental breakdown in 1918 and although he recovered sufficiently to continue composing he was never the same afterwards. In 1925 he was committed to the Barnwood House in Gloucester, then to the London Mental Hospital. He never recovered and died in 1937, aged 47. Poor Butterworth’s career was also quite brief, as he was shot by a sniper in France at age 31 while fighting in World War I. His body was never recovered. And of course we all know about poor Warlock-Heseltine’s mental disorder. So this CD may be said to be a tribute to three tragic British composers.
All in all, an interesting album presenting works of some imagination if not quite genius. Well worth seeking out.
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley