Dreams, Desires, Desolation: English Song

In Dreams, Desires, Desolation, baritone Trevor Alexander and pianist Peter Crockford present a miscellany of English song.  There are both art songs – some well-known, others less familiar – and what are commonly termed ‘parlour songs’, some of which were very popular in their day but are now less frequently sung or heard.  The poets are similarly diverse, representing the canonical – Shelley, Tennyson, Housman, Yeats, de la Mare, Arnold, the Rossettis (both Dante Gabriel and Christina) – and less commonly heard voices: Harold Harford, Katharine Hinkson, Ruth Rutherford, Thomas Beddoes, Mabel Dearmer.

The duo offer three ‘first’ recordings, two of which are by Clive Pollard (b.1959), who has been a finalist in the competitions organised by the English Poetry and Songs Society and has worked extensively with Alexander and Crockford.  ‘The cloths of heaven’ sets a well-known poem by Yeats, in which he depicts the existence of the people of Ireland who, lacking material sustenance, have to rely on their inner, imaginative lives.  Pollard’s accompaniment unrolls in circling patterns suggesting restlessness, and there is an accumulation of intensity towards the central declaration, “I would spread the cloths under your feet”, followed by a retreat, “But I, being poor, have only my dreams”.  Alexander captures something of the pride and humility of the lyric, although Pollard’s setting ignores the implications of Yeats’ rhythm and metre, and the way that the strong dactylic pulse gives way in the single stanza to a more gentle anapaestic movement.  ‘Go, song of mine’ is a setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s translation of a canzona by the thirteenth-century Italian poet and philosopher, Guido Cavalcanti, which was composed by Pollard especially for this disc (and has been set for a cappella chorus by Elgar and others).  I have to say that I don’t find Pollard’s anodyne oscillations and limited harmonic palette really capture the expressive weight in the protagonist’s heart who, “Dishevell’d and in tears”, sends out his song “[t]o break the hardness of the heart of man” but the performers present a poised reading.

There’s also the first commercial recording of ‘Autumn’ (1938), by Peter Gellhorn (1912-2004), a German conductor, composer and pianist who fled Nazi Germany in 1935 and settled in London where he forged a successful and influential career, working for the Carl Rosa Opera Company, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and becoming Director of the BBC Chorus (now the BBC Singers).  It’s one of several settings of Walter de la Mare included on the disc and in the murmuring dotted rhythm that pervades the piano accompaniment Crockford captures something of the ‘hope’ that lingers despite autumn’s erasure of the golden warmth of summer and of love.  Now, there are just “Sad winds where your voice was;/ Tears, tears where my heart was”; it a is desolate song and is delicately sung by Alexander.  It’s a powerful song, and we need to hear more of Gellhorn’s music.

One half expects to hear the hiss and crackle of a gramophone when encountering the ‘parlour songs’, but they are presented sincerely and with earnestness by Alexander and Crockford.  Haydn Wood (1882-1959) was raised on the Isle of Man (where Gellhorn was interned during the Second World War) and was one of the most successful ballad composers of the earlier decades of the twentieth century, composing seven song cycles and in excess of 200 hundred songs.  One of his best, and best-known, ‘Love’s Garden of Roses’, may be designed to pull the heartstrings rather than exercise the intellect but it does the former superlatively.  Alexander’s baritone is focused and true, and he rises surely and engaging to the melodic peaks; the piano’s syncopations are flexible and natural.  Amy Woodforde-Finden’s ‘Kashmiri Love Song’ (1902) based on a poem by Violet Nicolson (under the pseudonym Laurence Hope) was a drawing-room standard in its day but has similarly succumbed to the whims of fashion.  Alexander poses the song’s questions and wonderings tenderly, and lets the underlying passion speak without pretention.  Charles Marshall (1857-1927) was an obscure composer of a handful of songs when he went knocking on the door of the Irish lyric tenor John McCormack and offered him ‘I hear you calling me’ (setting words by Harold Harford).  It became McCormack’s signature tune.  Crockford manages the sometimes dense piano textures (lots of octave doubling in the left-hand and plush right-hand syncopations) most expressively, and Alexander makes telling use of his head voice in the song’s culminating phrases, capturing the wistful distance between present and past, between life and death.

It’s good to hear ‘Silver’ by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960).  A fortuitous family background enabled him to indulge his passion for composing, most compellingly in the world of song: he wrote 162 songs, 38 of which set poems by his friend Walter de la Mare.  One feels that Alexander might have made more of de la Mare’s alliteration, rhyme and diction – what a wonderful word is “shoon”! – to make the listener feel that they were a traveller through the poet’s dream world, but the duo’s straightforward approach works well in Victor Hely-Hutchinson’s de la Mare setting, ‘Dream Song’, which is both gentle and firmly outlined.  Cyril Scott (1879-1970) was known best for his piano music and songs and here we have his ‘Lullaby’ (which sets Christina Rossetti); it’s pleasant enough but feels a little four-square, though the rising phrase at the close is nicely shaped by Alexander.  The light textures and expressive melodic phrases of ‘Remembrance’ by Frederick Keel (1871-1954) are sensitively sculpted. 

For those wanting some familiar favourites, the duo offer three songs by Frank Bridge.  In ‘Come to me in my dreams’ there is an alertness sometimes absent in other songs, and a welcome attentiveness to the nuances of Matthew’s Arnold’s text; and, in ‘Journey’s End’, in which we are forced to face the inevitability of death, the chromaticism and upswellings of emotion are made to tell.  Crockford’s postlude is beautifully reflective.  This was Bridge’s last song. 

Roger Quilter’s ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’ is simply lovely, as it is and should be, while the composer’s ‘I arise from dreams of thee’, which was originally written for voice and orchestra is more harmonically restless.  Alexander and Crockford capture its Romantic tanginess.  Quilter doesn’t have the monopoly of good tunes, though: John Ireland’s ‘If there were dreams to sell’ is sung with a directness which is both poised and haunting.  Alexander’s diction is superb throughout the disc, none more so than in this song.  From Ralph Vaughan Williams we have the oft-heard ‘Silent Noon’ but also ‘The Sky above the Roof’; the latter is wonderfully tender, Alexander finding the expressive weight of the downwards-tugging phrases.  The disc opens with George Butterworth’s ‘Is my Team Ploughing?’ which makes use of a rather odd juxtaposition of retreat and rhetoric in the presentation of the poem’s two voices.  Generally, the engineers have done a good job in balancing voice and piano, though the sound isn’t especially ‘present’.

There are two songs on the disc that might be said to represent American art song and music theatre rather than English song.  The Dutch-born composer, conductor and pianist Richard Hageman (1881-1966) travelled from Holland to Hollywood, becoming an American citizen.  He worked at the Met and at Paramount Film Studios (he wrote twenty film scores including that for John Ford’s 1939 Western Stagecoach).  He also composed 69 songs, setting 51 different poets.  ‘Do not go, my love’ (1917) sets Tagore.  It would benefit from a bit more Romantic profundity and a much grander sweep – the spirit of Tchaikovsky looms large in this song but is overlooked in this reading.  ‘How could I ever know’ by Lucy Simon (1940-2022) is a rather saccharine ‘encore’, but earnestly sung.

Alexander and Crockford’s selection of songs is eclectic.  Liner notes introduce composers and poets, and say a little about the musical settings, but there are no texts.  Perhaps there might have been more intensity at times, more engagement with the poetic texts?  But, I’ve been listening to this disc with a tear in my eye, and that’s a good thing.

Claire Seymour

Dreams, Desires, Desolation: English Song
Trevor Alexander (baritone), Peter Crockford (piano)

George Butterworth – ‘Is my team ploughing?’; Frank Bridge – ‘Come to me in my dreams’; Charles Marshall – ‘I Hear You Calling Me’; Roger Quilter – ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal’; Clive Pollard – ‘Go, song of mine’; Richard Hageman – ‘Do not go, my love’; Ralph Vaughan Williams – ‘Silent noon’; Frederick Keel – ‘Remembrance’; Victor Hely-Hutchinson – ‘Dream song’; Bridge – ‘What shall I your true love tell?’; Haydn Wood – ‘Love’s garden of roses’; Peter Gellhorn – ‘Autumn’; John Ireland – ‘If there were dreams to sell’; Cecil Armstrong Gibbs – ‘Silver’; Pollard – ‘The cloths of heaven’; Vaughan Williams – ‘The sky above the roof’; Cyril Scott – ‘Lullaby’; Amy Woodforde-Finden – ‘Kashmiri Song’; Quilter – ‘I arise from dreams of thee’; Bridge – ‘Journey’s End’; Lucy Simon – ‘How could I ever know’

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