27 Jun 2020

Those Blue Remembered Hills: Roderick Williams sings Gurney and Howells

Baritone Roderick Williams seems to have been a pretty constant ‘companion’, on my laptop screen and through my stereo speakers, during the past few ‘lock-down’ months.

Whether singing to the birds of the Warwickshire countryside from his rural garden, participating in Wigmore Hall’s ground-breaking live lunchtime recital series, or popping up as Papageno - reliving memories of his 2017 Covent Garden performances by self-accompanying ‘Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen’ with a percussion orchestra of ‘tuned’ glasses and forks - Williams doesn’t seem to have had a ‘quiet’ lockdown in any sense of the word.

Another thing that seems to have been ringing regularly in my ears of late is music from what is often termed the ‘English Musical Renaissance’, those late Victorian and Edwardian years when English composers sought, by drawing on folksong and music from the Tudor and Stuart period, to establish a contemporary national musical idiom, distinct from but equal to European traditions and styles. Williams has been a strong presence in this regard too: alongside performances of Butterworth and Vaughan Williams, Williams’ and pianist Susie Allan’s interpretations of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s song-cycles A Shropshire Lad and Maud was released by Somm Recordings in May, and now we have the opportunity to hear Williams return to Housman as set by Ivor Gurney, alongside the music of Herbert Howells, on this splendid Em Records release, Those Blue Remembered Hills.

Westernplayland Carnegie.jpg

The works presented on Those Blue Remembered Hills were all composed between 1914 and 1925, and several are world premiere recordings. This disc opens with Gurney’s The Western Playland (and of Sorrow), a song-cycle comprising eight settings of poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, in which Williams is joined by pianist Michael Dussek and the Bridge String Quartet. These instrumentalists also performed, with tenor Charles Daniels, on an earlier Em Records disc, Heracleitus, which offered another Gurney setting of Housman, Ludlow and Teme, composed in the same year. At the Royal College of Music, Gurney had studied both German lieder and French mélodie traditions, but both of these Housman song-cycles are evidently influenced by Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge (1909) which Gurney heard in 1919. They were published as part of the Carnegie Collection of British Music, Ludlow and Teme in 1923 and The Western Playland in 1926.

Gurney had revised both scores while he was a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford, Kent, where he remained until his death in 1937 at the age of 47. The cycle is presented here in a new edition by Philip Lancaster, who explains (in one of several of the liner book’s illuminating articles, and elsewhere) that Gurney’s revisions were quite substantial - ‘textures were added and reworked, the scoring often wholly altered (one song originally scored largely for strings was in revision accompanied largely by piano); harmonies became more diffuse, in Gurney’s impressionistic vein; and the songs in parts substantially redrafted’ - and sometimes very problematic (in one case, leading Lancaster to return largely to the original 1920 version). Reflecting on the title, Lancaster speculates that title of The Western Playland alludes to both the Western Front and to Gurney’s home county of Gloucestershire, while ‘and of Sorrow’ which was added in 1925 may be inspired by A Shropshire Lad poem, not set here:

‘In my own shire, if I was sad,
Homely comforters I had:
The earth, because my heart mas sore,
Sorrowed for the son she bore;
And standing hills, long to remain,
Shared their short-lived comrade’s pain.’ (XLI)

As one would expect, Gurney’s musical responses to Housman’s poems are sensitive and intensely lyrical. Listening to the cycle for the first time, I heard a Brahmsian touch in the melodies, but I was struck by the flexibility of Gurney’s forms and melodies as he shapes each song and phrase precisely to the sounds and sense of the poetic text, and by the surprisingly unpredictable harmonic twists and heightenings. The instrumental accompaniments are no less diverse in timbres, texture and colour, and they serve as sonic landscapes which support the verbal meaning and emotion. The songs present considerable technical challenges for all the performers. The instrumentalists must balance ever-changing textures, while the singer must negotiate sometimes angular melodies which rove through restless rhythmic shapes and wide-ranging tessituras. The smooth legato that Williams sustains, seemingly effortlessly and always articulating the texts with precision and finely judged emphasis, is notable.

RWilliams.jpgRoderick Williams

‘Reveille’ is a stirring dawn cry, the first three stanzas opening with exhortations to “Wake”, “Wake”, “Up, lad, up, ’tis late for lying”: time passes, each moment must be lived to the fullest. But, ‘reveille’ does not just infer sunrise, it is also the word used to describe the bugle-call that wakes the military, and we hear the beat of soldiers’ drums in the firm stamp of the piano bass and cello. Williams brilliantly unites lyrical vocalism with declamatory briskness, and echoes between instruments and the voice conjure energy. Though the central section is more dreamy, with thoughts of lands untrod and beckoning hovering softly in the upper strings, up and onwards it must be. Yet, the quietude of the postlude and the poignancy of the viola’s ‘last word’ remind us, “There’s be time enough to sleep” - as Gurney himself confirmed in his own eloquent song to that ‘eternal rest’.

The theme of transience is developed in ‘Loveliest of Trees’ in which the seventh-based harmony of the opening and impressionistic progressions create a fleeting, vulnerable quality. There is such delicate melancholy in the falling motif - a blossom floating gently to the ground - which opens the piano introduction and vocal line, and which the strings, generally restrained throughout, develop in the eloquent postlude. This is the sort of song, and singing, which warms the heart even as it brings hot tears to one’s eyes. Indeed, “With rue my heart is laden” sings the poet-speaker after the strings’ tender introduction to the more folk-like ‘Golden Friends’. Williams’ often unaccompanied vocal line is wonderfully light and even, threatening at times, it seems, to disappear but softly sustaining its recollections of “lightfoot boys” and “rose-lipt girls … sleeping in fields where roses fade”, until a whispered postlude unfurls sweetly into silence.

Gurney was a keen sportsman as a schoolboy, and football and cricket momentarily keep grief at bay, sustaining a lust for life in the brief ‘Twice a Week’. Williams’ baritone may be strong and resolute but the singer’s sentiments are belied by the brusqueness of the gruff, dissonant strings and the rhythmic instability of the song (which Williams negotiates with pinpoint accuracy), especially in the final stanza where the thundering syncopation in the piano bass, mis-accented text-setting and dense string discords seem to disdainfully sneer. ‘The Aspens’ is folk-like rumination on eternal nature’s indifference to man’s transience, seen through the eyes of a widower who predeceases his second wife, thereby perpetuating the cycle of love and loss. Williams’ unaccompanied vocal entries are sweet and sure, and the long phrases - the time-signature ceaselessly changing - extend with lyrical eloquence, accompanied alternately by strings and piano, the instruments coming together when the voice is silent. Each time the singer notes the watching aspen, the vocal line rises to a peak and then falls an octave interval, and the smooth evenness with which Williams’ shapes this expressive gesture is deeply moving.

michael-dussek.jpgMichael Dussek.

Gurney eschews the invitation in ‘Is my team ploughing’ to vocally distinguish the ballad’s speakers preferring instead to oppose the text and accompaniment to underline the song’s poignancy. For example, the questions from the man who lies in the earth, “Is my team ploughing”, “Is football playing … Now that I stand up no more?” are answered by the relentless jigging, jangling quavers in the piano and strings which cruelly tease with their undeniable presence and vigour. Tension builds as the harmonies and textures complicate, but “Is my girl happy” interrupts: a pianissimo dynamic, a descending vocal phrase and the commencement of an ominous syncopated low octave pedal in cello and piano bass lead to a solo parlando question, sung with quiet but heart-wrenching directness by Williams, “And has she tired of weeping/ As she lies down at eve?” The strings’ hushed answer ‘replies’ powerfully and plaintively. This is a tremendous unity of lyricism and drama.

However, The Western Playground ends in more joyful fashion, with ‘March’, a setting of the longest poem of the eight, ‘The sun at noon to higher air’. The piano’s light arpeggio triplets, symmetrically patterned, and the strings’ concordant sweetness conjure youthfulness and optimism, while the constant lilt of two-against-three creates a naturalism and freedom that is perfectly embodied by the relaxed warmth of Williams’ baritone. There are pauses for instrumental reflection between the stanzas, and a more ambiguous mood marks the fourth stanza’s mirage-like, symbolist vision of farm girls resting in the palms’ shadows beside the pond’s and hedge’s “waving silver-tufted” wands. But, with the firm assertion that “lovers should be loved again”, Gurney closes not with loss and longing but with life and love. The lingering postlude at first seems to question such certainty, but eventually the piano’s dark reverberations, the high silvery violins and the aspiring ascents of cello and viola dissolve into stillness and peace.

If I have spent a long time describing The Western Playground it is because Gurney’s cycle, and even more so this brilliant performance by Williams, Dussek and the Bridge Quartet, make this disc an absolute must-have, not just for Gurney aficionados but for all lovers of English song, indeed all song. But, Those Blue Remembered Hills offers much more too.

There are four songs by Herbert Howells, including ‘There was a Maiden’ and ‘Girl’s Song’ from Fours Songs Op.22 (1916). In the first, Williams seems to inject a tint of wisdom into his baritonal warmth - a note of maturity to balance the shimmering melancholy of the piano’s oscillating patterns. Here, the baritone’s verbal pointings add much to the simple strophic form: “The cold wind blows across the lea”, sending a shiver through one’s spine, while the description of the maiden, “pale, so pale, with never a rose”, makes one fear for the vulnerable lass. ‘Girl’s Song’, brimming with desire and visceral feeling, may last less than 90 seconds, but Williams and Dussek offer a masterclass in musical articulation and expression. Howell’s setting of a text by Northumbrian poet Wilfrid Gibson, ‘The Mugger’s Song’, is an unpretentious, boisterous rural character-study, precisely drawn here; best of all is the compelling directness and simplicity of ‘King David’, with its ‘antique’ modal and pentatonic tints. Both Williams and Dussek rise to tremendous heights of eloquent expression.

Bridge-Quartet.jpgThe Bridge Quartet

There are further songs by Gurney too, the ballad ‘Edward, Edward’ - a setting from the Reliques of Thomas Percy, in which Williams’ has a good stab at Scots brogue - and one of Gurney’s best-known songs, ‘By a Bierside’ (a song which was orchestrated by Howells), which Gurney’s Collected Letters (ed. R.K.R. Thornton) reveal ‘came to birth in a disused Trench Mortar emplacement’ and which brings the disc to a close. Williams’ demonstrates that his wistful head voice, bold middle range, and probing deep bass-like resonance are equally affecting. I could literally feel the thunderous shine of Williams’ proclamation of John Masefield’s final words, “It is most grand to die”, pulse in my heart, before the tranquil repetition “so grand” quietened the passion. Heracleitus had included an Adagio for string quar1tet played by the Bridge Quartet, which is an earlier version of the D Minor String Quartet heard in full on this disc - a world premiere recording.

Why is it that these English poets and composers - Georgians and Edwardians - seem to speak so strongly to us still? I don’t think that it is simply that they console, or feed, a nostalgia for an Edwardian twilight, more that there are times, in any age and place, when we long for what we imagine was a simpler age.

In a letter to his friend Marion Scott (musicologist, poet, composer, violinist and more) dated December 1916, Gurney reflected on life in the trenches in France: ‘After all, my friend, it is better to live a grey life in mud and danger, so long as one uses it - as I trust I am now doing - as a means to an end. Someday all this experience may be crystallized and glorified in me; and men shall learn by chance fragments in a string quartett [sic] or symphony, what thoughts haunted the minds of men who watched the darkness grimly in desolate places.’ This recording confirms that Gurney did indeed crystallise and glorify those experiences in words and music.

Before listening to this disc, I could not imagine anyone who could better capture the poignancy of that suffering, and the beauty which rises from it, and transcends it, than Roderick Williams. Having listened to Those Blue Remembered Hills, I do not think that Williams has done anything finer.

Claire Seymour