Peter Lindroth’s Songs of Wilfred Owen

CDA3005 - cover

WP 2019 - 2LINDROTH: The Send-Off. The Show. Dulce et decorum est. Arms and the Boy. I Saw His Round Mouth’s Crimson. Asleep.* The Chances. Insensibility.* The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. The Next War. Six O’Clock in Prince’s Street. Futility / John Erik Eleby, bs-bar; Mats Jansson, pno *w/Yoriko Ashahara, pno / Sterling Modern CDM 3005-2

Peter Lindroth (b. 1950) is a Swedish composer, graduate of the State Music College and Royal College of Music, who has written extensively for solo voice, chorus, chamber ensembles and orchestra. He had read the novels and poems of Wilfred Owen’s contemporaries but didn’t run across the latter’s writing until fairly late, “as his poetry was the hardest to find.” This series of songs was composed in 2007-08. The set was performed by bass-baritone John Erik Eleby and pianist Mats Jansson in the village church of Ors, France on the hundredth anniversary of Owen’s death, November 4, 2018.

Lindroth’s style, at least in these songs, is very similar to that of Ned Rorem: basically tonal with harmonic leanings outside of the tonal center. Eleby has a large and extremely rich voice, sounding almost like the late Australian bass Malcolm McEachern except with much more power. He tries his best to enunciate the words as clearly as he can, and one can indeed pick up a word here and there, but there are moments when his Swedish accent gets in the way. “And saw a sad land,” for instance, comes out as “Und sah a sod lond.” But at least he tries, and thankfully all the words are printed in the accompanying booklet.

As Benjamin Britten did in the War Requiem, Lindroth chooses mostly minor keys for his songs, reflecting the sadness of the words. Lindroth also uses a style in which he pauses at the ends of certain lines, as one would do when reciting the poem, which I found quite effective. And yet I can just hear lovers of lieder singing complaining that there aren’t enough “tunes” here. Well, read the words, folks; these are poems of war and death. They’re not about some wuss whining about his unrequited love. The piano accompaniments also match the mood of the poetry and do not just keep going, playing a steady pulse or repeated melodic lines. Very often, they consist only of soft, occasional chords or little upward figures that complement the vocal line. Very rarely, as in the opening of “Arms and the Boy,” does the pianist play something like a normal piano line. Very often, the piano part mirrors the vocal line, only with chords.

In the opening of “I Saw His Round Mouth’s Crimson,” a song about watching one of his comrades get shot and die, Lindroth forsakes melody entirely to present a pounding, violent series of close chords on the piano while the singer does a sort of Sprechstimme. “Asleep” is the longest song on the album at 9:40, is one of the most morbid of Owen’s poems:

Under his helmet, up against his pack,
After the many days of work and waking,
Sleep took him by the brow and laid him back.
And in the happy no-time of his sleeping,
Death took him by the heart. There was a quaking
Of the aborted life within him leaping…
Then chest and sleepy arms once more fell slack.
And soon the slow, stray blood came creeping
From the intrusive lead, like ants on track.

“Insensibility,” a poem about how happy some men are who can avoid hurting their feet on the cobblestones in the alley or not worry about being killed, is set to ragtime music in order to heighten the irony of the words…a masterstroke.

In “The Next War,” Lindroth has the piano pound an atonal ostinato chord repeatedly while the right-hand figures continually shift, sometimes even approaching, if you can believe it, a jazz rhythm—perhaps recalling the ragtime feel of “Insensibility”—while the singer works his way through a relatively simple melody, at least simple if the piano wasn’t pounding opposing harmonies in his ear. Once again, Lindroth helps the singer out by having the piano occasionally play the singer’s line in the right hand.

“Six O’Clock in Prince’s Street” features rhythm that somewhat simulates lazy-sounding café music. Again, the singer’s line is melodic and tonal while the accompaniment, particularly in the right hand, is out in orbit somewhere. We end with “Futility”; I’ll leave it up to your imagination as to how this song goes.

This is an absolutely outstanding album. Lindroth has done a magnificent job with these songs. I hope someday to hear a singer with a voice as good as Elby’s singing them in clearer English.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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