The English Tenor: a debut disc from Scott Robert Shaw

The English Tenor might seem a rather odd title for a disc which is sung by a tenor who was born in Australia, trained at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and the Royal Conservatory of the Hague, and who has worked extensively in Germany and the Netherlands.  But, as Scott Robert Shaw explains in his introduction to this ‘who’s who of English song’, released earlier this month by Divine Art Recordings, he is very much a product of the English church music tradition, having spent his formative years singing in the St George’s Cathedral Choir in Perth and later performing with the professional Choir of St James, King Street in Sydney and in London with the Holst Singers under Stephen Layton.  During these years, the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten and Gerald Finzi – ‘culturally, musically, vocally and professionally’ – was his staple diet.  And, it is to this repertoire that he returns on The English Tenor, also presenting songs by Quilter and Gurney, and performing with five musical partners: pianists Luba Podgayskaya, William Drakett and James Williams; harpist Emilie Bastens; and violinist Eva de Vries.

So, what is an ‘English’ tenor?  Well, all labels are to some extent stereotypes, but there’s a certain type of voice that emerges from the British choral system: light, lyric, with a fairly short upper range – all those anthems and services haven’t required them to belt out top Cs, after all – and not especially resonant, but characterised by a pure tone, the ability to ‘float’ at the top of the register and good diction and attention to textual meaning – and thus perfectly suited to the choral repertoire and English art song.  Peter Pears was probably the first singer recognisably in this mould, and other esteemed tenors have followed, among them Robert Tear, Ian Partridge, Philip Langridge, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, Mark Padmore and Ian Bostridge.  

The English Tenor opens with Ivor Gurney’s Five Elizabeth Songs (1913-14) which sets texts by John Fletcher and Thomas Nashe as well as two by Shakespeare, and which are generally considered some of the composer’s best work.  Shaw proves to have a very ‘natural’ tone and vocal manner; indeed, it sounds almost ‘untrained’ at times – and that’s not a criticism, rather a way of conveying the folk-like directness and simplicity that he brings to his interpretations of these songs.  There’s none of the occasional nasality that sometimes one associates with ‘English tenors’, nor the intensity of focus in the middle register, but Shaw’s shares their lyric lightness and articulates the text with gentleness and care.

In the first song, ‘Orpheus’, Podgayskaya’s incessant semi-quavers trickle along nonchalantly, matched by Shaw’s lack of mannerisms.  The tenor doesn’t always negotiate Gurney’s long, dipping and arching phrases smoothly – there are a few awkward breaths that disrupt the flow – but the overall result is certainly pleasing to the ear.  The piano’s quiet rolling octave quavers establish a fittingly sombre mood at the start of ‘Tears’, and here the vocal phrases are more smoothly shaped, though one notices the absence of the sort of gentle vibrato that would heighten the repeated falling fifths and bring more nuance to the text.  Shaw copes well with the lower register of this song, however, and the final ppp falling repetition of “Sleeping” is tenderly placed.

‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ is less successful, I feel.  It’s very slow for one thing – Ian Partridge and Jennifer Partridge, and Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano come in 20 and 15 seconds shorter, in their respective recordings and their sprightlier tempi give lightness and lift to the short lyric.  They also sing with much more variety of colour and weight which creates drama and interest.  One would like Shaw to do more, for example, with the repetitions, “Come hither”, which invite variation and growth – indeed Gurney places an accent on the final “hither”.  ‘Sleep’, probably Gurney’s most well-known song, is shaped with more nuanced dynamics and the climax of the song is un-effortful and effective.  ‘Spring’ flows along but it doesn’t frolic (looking at other recordings some are 30 seconds shorter): one wants, too, to literally hear the calls of cuckoos and jug-jugs as if they are in the tree beside our window, and feel the rush of warmth as lovers meet and old wives smiling in the spring sunshine.

Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Housman-cycle Along the Field (1927, rev. 1952) loosely unfolds a narrative of a young man who wanders alone in the countryside, lost in his thoughts of his deceased beloved, though along the way there is a celebration of local and rural activities too.  It is unusual in that the voice is accompanied by solo violin, and because Vaughan Williams’ writing is increasing complex harmonically, sometimes venturing into atonality.  The disorientating nature of the harmony creates a detached, alienated mood at times.

The solo violin part is challenging but Eva de Vries grapples with its demands persuasively, from the rhapsodic elegance of the countermelody in ‘We’ll to the woods no more’, to the warm, droning double-stops of ‘Along the field’ and taxing thirds of ‘The Half-Moon Westers Low’.  She brings passion to the postlude of ‘In the Morning’ which adds considerably to the emotional ‘weight’ of the song.  Her bow drifting over the fingerboard, de Vries’ whispering quavers mournfully evoke the haunting breathes of ‘The sigh that heaves the grass’.  It’s a pity that the violin is rather distanced.  A nearer sound, creating better balance between the two lines, would have highlighted the interaction of voice and violin more emphatically.

The texts are intricate and there is a prevailing musical austerity.  They require a fine singer who is also a fine interpreter.  There is an authenticity about Shaw’s delivery of the modal, folk-like ‘We’ll to the woods no more’ and ‘Along the field’.  There might be more heightening and rubato, but he embodies his story-telling role convincingly.  This gentle, reflective tone is not really appropriate for ‘The Half-Moon Westers Low’, however; here, the young man speaks directly to his dead beloved and this song needs to subtly but with impact convey his anguish.  Shaw is rather too dreamy.  In ‘The sigh that heaves the grass’ he observes the composer’s ‘senza espress.’ marking but his ‘sempre pp’ is quite forthright, especially against de Vries’ ghostly murmurs.  ‘Good-bye’ is brisk and rousing.  ‘Fancy’s Knell’ might skip along with a brisker step if it’s to capture the joy of Shropshire lads and girls dancing.  The short final song is ‘With Rue my Heart is Laden’: it’s a sad but beautiful song of remembrance, which Shaw sings with controlled expressiveness.

William Drakett joins Shaw for Quilter’s Four Songs Op.14 (1910) and his introduction to ‘Autumn Evening’ immediately establishes a tone of quiet nostalgia.  The piano flows gently but mellifluously through the song, overlapping with the vocal phrases and creating an impression of movement as the persona of Arthur Maquarie’s poem goes to visit the grave of a loved one.  Shaw again sings with an apt lyrical poise, and if he might make more, in terms of vocal colour, of the change of mood in the second stanza when the poet-speaker’s thoughts turn to sweeter remembrances, then he shapes the ending of the song movingly, as the persona says farewell, “My love, my love, sleep on”.   

The aphoristic ‘April’ might be crisper of diction and brighter of spirit, but in ‘A Last Year’s Rose’ which follows (text, W. E. Henley) Shaw and Drakett capture the magnitude of the text’s message, about the inevitable mortality of both man and nature, which is conveyed through such simple verbal imagery, without ever overwhelming the delicacy of the song.  The vocal rests gently on the major third at the end of the song, “Love is last year’s Rose”, the lack of finality intimating what is not directly said.  ‘The Song of the Blackbird’ also sets a text by Henley.  It makes for a sparkling, close celebrating not just the beauty of the bird’s song but the love of life that it exudes.

Britten is represented by his 8 Folksongs arranged for high voice and harp (published 1976).  One of the challenges for any tenor who approaches Britten is the shadow of Peter Pears, but Shaw shares something of his ‘ethereal’ quality if not all of his colourist’s artistry.  Similarly, in these settings, Emilie Bastens has Osian Ellis’s act to follow.  No pressure then!  For the brief ‘Lord! I Married me a Wife!’, Shaw fittingly darkens and roughens his tone, but he doesn’t quite capture the almost despairing belligerence of the text, which laments the consequences of marriage, nor bring drama or variation to the punchy repetitions of the words, “life”, “wife” and “work” – though Bastens’ off-beat punctuations are firm and quite aggressive.  The tenor is more at home in the Newfoundland song ‘She’s like a swallow’, singing with tenderness and immediacy – though again, it would be nice if varying colours could highlight the changing emotions of the strophic texts.  Bastens’ harp accompaniment flows lullingly, until suddenly it is silent as the singer tells, “She laid her head down, no word did say,/ Until this fair maid’s heart did break”.  It’s a brilliant expressive touch by Britten, and very effectively executed here. 

‘Lemady’ has a sparer – but no less expressive – accompanying texture, and Shaw’s voice feels free and cheerful here, reflecting the poet-speaker’s joy in his love and in the natural world.  His diction is crisp, too, which aids the harsh realism of the Northumberland ‘Bonny at Morn’, with its rocking, unsettling accompaniment.  There are two Welsh songs, ‘Bugeilio’r Gwenith Gwyn’ (I was lonely and forlorn) and Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock), and one from Cecil Sharp’s English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians, ‘The False Knight Upon the Road’.  Shaw and Bastens build intensity through the latter’s seven verses, as the questioning of the child by the ‘false’ Knight becomes ever more threatening; the bluntness of the child’s clinching riposte is both wry and pointed.  The final song of the set is the Somerset ‘Bird Scarer’s Song’, in which the protagonist’s vivid cries, “Shoo arlo arlo”, are answered by the harp’s pictorial illustration of the response of his feathered foes.

Finzi brings the disc to a close, with Let us Garlands Bring Op.18 (first performed 1942).  In these songs, Shaw seems to find more radiance and also makes expressive use of vibrato which not only allows him to phrase more tellingly but deepens the response to the text that he communicates.   A little more rubato would be the icing on the cake.

In ‘Come away, come away death’, sung by Feste in Twelfth Night, Finzi uses large intervallic leaps to give power to the lament.  Such angularity doesn’t trouble Shaw, and neither does the extended melisma on ‘weep’ or the sometimes surprising harmonic twists.  ‘Who is Silvia?’ trips along, the 3/8 bars interjected into the regular 2/4 time signature neatly integrated.  And, though the sentiments of this ditty from Two Gentleman of Verona are light, Shaw brings authority to the declaration, “She excels each mortal thing/ Upon the dull earth dwelling”.

There’s a distinct change of mood with ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ (Cymbeline), which depicts death as the great leveller.  Shaw sustains the ongoing phrases with intensity, which makes the quiet final verse with its limited melodic compass, and when the piano’s lilting rhythms are replaced by sustained chords, all the more poignant.  But, we end on a reassuring note, with songs which impress that we must grasp the joys of the present, returning to Twelfth Night for the ebullient ‘O Mistress Mine’ and then turning to As you like it for ‘It was a lover and his lass’, in which the persistent syncopation evokes a relaxed optimism.  James Williams’ postlude shines with excitement, and throughout the cycle the pianist plays with lucidity, shaping Finzi’s part-writing in the inner voices with discernment.

This was a brave disc to curate and record.  The heritage and competition are considerable!  And, I’m not sure that I would describe Scott Robert Shaw as an ‘English tenor’, as the term is commonly understood.  He seems to me very much his own man – which is no bad thing.  His tenor has a distinctive and attractive tonal quality, and he sings with a directness and honesty that are by turns charming and moving.  More than enough reasons to buy this lovely disc.

Claire Seymour

The English Tenor: Scott Robert Shaw (tenor) Luba Podgayskaya (piano), Eva de Vries (violin), William Drakett (piano), Emilie Bastens (harp), James Williams (piano)

Gurney – Five Elizabethan Songs, Vaughan Williams Along the Field, Quilter – Four Songs, Op.14, Britten8 Folksong Arrangements for high voice and harp, Finzi – Let Us Garlands Bring Op.18

Divine Art Recordings DDX 21110 [72:28]