Sweet was the Song

The recital’s actual theme is Elizabethan poetry as set
by British composers of the period or of the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, all performed by tenor Robert Bracey and pianist Andrew Harley.
The final 15 minutes of the 70-minute program are given over to a performance
of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Four Hymns for Tenor, Piano and
, where they are joined by a fellow member of the University of
North Carolina faculty, violist Scott Rawls.

Within the vocal music world, Dorumsgaard is best known for his 22-volume
Canzone Scordate, sensitive arrangements for voice and piano of a
wide variety of songs that would not otherwise be available to artists in
vocal-piano recitals: European folk songs, old songs in French, Italian, and
German, as well as the songs on this disc, most of which were originally lute
songs by Elizabethan-period composers John Dowland, John Bartlet, and John
Attey. Other artists who have recorded his arrangements include Frederica von
Stade and Gerard Souzay, as well as Kirsten Flagstad, who recorded a recital
of Dorumsgaard’s original songs in Norwegian along with a selection of
his arrangements. (The best source of information on him that I have found
online is his obituary.)

The present disc begins with five settings of Elizabethan poetry by Roger
Quilter, whose skillful settings of the texts and interesting but unobtrusive
accompaniments draw us in and introduce three texts that we will hear again
later in the program: Shakespeare’s “O Mistress Mine” and
“Come away death”, and the anonymous “Weep you no
more”, all of which intertwine the themes of love and death, through
grief for the beloved, grief for oneself at being scorned by the beloved, or
an exhortation to love now as death will come soon enough.

This set is followed by a generous selection of Dorumsgaard’s
arrangements. As the tunes, if not the arrangements, are contemporary with
the poetry itself, this section gives a taste of the musical environment in
which the poets wrote the texts. The difficulty I have with this section is
that there is insufficient contrast among the songs to keep my interest
engaged all the way through. With the exception of the minute given over to
the energetic “What thing is love?” the music is fairly languid.
There are ten English lute song arrangements available in the Canzone
; the artists present six here, then wisely follow with
Dorumsgaard’s arrangement of Thomas Arne’s eighteenth-century
setting of Shakespeare’s “Come away death”, which adds some
stylistic contrast and eases the transition toward the more modern music.

We re-enter the twentieth century with Eric Thiman’s “The
Silver Swan”, a bird whose song in dying makes the statement
“More Geese than Swans now live—more fools than wise”,
which is curmudgeonly but perhaps fitting as a follow-up to the work of
Dorumsgaard, who gave up original composition and devoted himself to
arrangements of earlier music. As if to emphasize the contrast between the
earlier era and the present, the next song is Gustav Holst’s
“Weep you no more”, a text heard twice before as set by Quilter
and Dowland, but noticeably different from either in Holst’s
Wagner-influenced harmonies. The Germanic influence continues into Ivor
Gurney’s delicately lush setting of “Sleep”, a text which
reappears two songs later in an equally fine setting by Peter Warlock, who
counted among his many musical influences both Roger Quilter and the music of
the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods. Thus it is fitting that the
Elizabethan-inspired section of the program closes with several more of
Warlock’s songs to Elizabethan texts, finishing with the lively
“As ever I saw”.

By this point in the program, we have spent about 55 minutes hearing a
variety of musical styles unified by the poetry of a single glorious era in
English literature. Bracey sings the songs in an engaged but straightforward
style that doesn’t vary in color much beyond a consistently ringing
timbre that grew a bit tiring for this listener after a while. But when the
sonic landscape opens out with the addition of the viola and the more
triumphant, extroverted music of Vaughan Williams’ 4 Hymns,
Bracey comes into his own. According to the CD booklet, he won first prize in
the Oratorio Society of New York’s Annual International Solo
Competition in 2002, and his skill with that style of music translates well
to this piece, which opens with the two instruments playing at full volume
and the voice cutting through as a triumphant recitative. In the more
meditative second and third songs, the warmth of the viola brings out a
warmth in Bracey’s voice which, if it was there, was not as pronounced
earlier in the recital, when it would have been welcome. An echo of the
triumph of the first song is heard in the concluding “Evening
Hymn” with its evocative ground bass in the piano part of the first and
last verses of the voice, continuing under the viola’s postlude that
gradually fades into quiet as evening falls.

The booklet includes texts of the songs and notes on the composers
represented in the program, as well as biographies of the artists and
publication information on the songs.

Barbara Miller

image_description=Sweet was the Song
product_title=Sweet was the Song
product_by=Robert Bracey, tenor, Andrew Harley, piano, Scott Rawls, viola
product_id=Centaur CRC 2779 [CD]