Alice Coote, Graham Johnson: An English Songbook

Alice Coote (mezzo), Graham Johnson (piano): The Power of Love: An English Songbook. Hyperion, 2012.  Music by James Lynam Molloy, Maude Valérie White, Edward Elgar, Liza Lehmann, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Graham Peel, Roger Quilter, Percy Granger, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, Peter Warlock, E. J. Moeran, Ivor Gurney, Gustav Holst.

I was eager to love this recording. I liked it, I salute its existence, I understand its importance. But it failed to make me love it.

The collection of 27 (!) songs by English composers written between 1884 and 1920s is a serious rejoinder to the presumption that there isn’t much of an English Art Song tradition, certainly not anything coinciding with and coming close to the vibrancy of the German nineteenth-century Lied nor French fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century mélodies period. The man behind the project and at the piano and the writer of the comprehensive liner notes is Graham Johnson. The selection, it appears, was a joint endeavour of the singer and the pianist. Coote started from the text, according to Johnson, and read all the poems first independently of the music. Johnson’s own notes are elaborate commentary on primarily the poetry, history and biography, and occasionally veer to whimsical over-interpretation. (Imagine if Elgar ever met Hardy, muses Johnson. They would have “got on”, but the religious Elgar would have been “shocked” at the thought of ever setting Hardy’s poetry to music. Elsewhere, perhaps Gurney, when he decided to set John Davidson’s poem about a boat setting into the unknown, knew that the poet ended his life with a suicide? Perhaps.)

It’s a good read all the same, Johnson’s booklet, and very educational about a corner of the Western song rep of which little is known. There are poems by Shelley, Byron, AC Benson (EM Benson’s brother), Robert Browning, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Tennyson, Charles Lamb, and the lesser-knowns but very lucky finds for this writer, such as Humbert Wolfe, of whom more below. (Interestingly, Johnson suggests the decline in the reading of poetry as a major cause of the decline of Art Song and composers’ interest in the form, and I agree.) The songs are chronologically ordered, which is an excellent decision. We start with Victorians and we spend some time with a number of songs of the 19thC that were a genre in-between the popular ballad and the art song. We end with the First World War and the aftermath, with a very clear change, a recognizable bridge towards Britten.

I am belabouring the point, but the text rules supreme in this collection. You’ll never hear me complain about the prominence of text in anything, but the balance is so naturally tipped towards text here, the text so easily outshines the rather garden variety music that it’s married to, that one feels cheated. Not all is the Dead Sea, of course. The ballads will be something new and interesting for a moment or two. Further, there are two women composers in the collection, and this is much appreciated, Mr Johnson. Maude Valérie White’s songs should absolutely be performed and recorded again. We also learn about the “gentleman composer”, the men of independent wealth who composed for their own pleasure and entertainment and left a large number of songs behind, some of which we get to hear. In addition, there are a couple of fairly enjoyable numbers about music and musicians (Elgar’s Speak, music, for instance), the funny Hypochondriacus (Gibbs), Pa’s Bank (Lehmann), Queen Anne (Warlock). But none of this erases the general impression of the music of this collection as the unexciting, derivative and forever only in a bud.

That is, until we reach the last two songs, Journey’s End and in particular Betelgeuse (pronounced as Beatleguaise, if you happen to wonder) by a Humbert Wolfe (1885-1940), set to music by Gustav Holst. Johnson tells in the notes that Wolfe was promptly trashed in the dustbin of poetic history upon the emergence of Auden & comp., and this couldn’t have helped his songs. I wish Johnson included more than two here. Betelgeuse is a stunning piece of text, outstanding even in the already solid textual base of the collection. Holst’s musical response to it could not have been more adequate – an arte povera of song composition, both text and music very Beckettian before Beckett, but to say this means not to do justice to either as they’re much more and much more original than that. Betelgeuse is a devastating ending to a mildly entertaining series of amuse-bouches, a moment of desperation after the Edwardian puff. This, and the well-chosen cover art (a painting by the singer’s father, Mark Coote) give this recording artifact some unexpected, not quite explicable weight.

2 thoughts on “Alice Coote, Graham Johnson: An English Songbook

  1. I’m surprised that anybody would think that there wasn’t an English song tradition. Purcell, Blow, the Lindleys. OK the 19th century is a bit of a hole but then in the 20th there’s Quilter, Somervell, Vaughan-Williams, Warlock, Britten, Holst, Walton, Lehmann and more recently Weir, Turnage and Maxwell Davies. All of those composers have written extensively for voice and piano. I must have a dozen CDs at least of English song post 1900.

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