English composers of the 20th century have made some of finest contributions to the song literature. Our English Song Series is an ongoing survey of the best of these works performed by the leading interpreters of our day. The newest addition to the series features songs by William Alwyn, including world premieres of two songs: “Nocturnes” and “Slum Songs.”
William Alwyn composed prolifically in virtually all genres, orchestral, chamber, vocal and instrumental. His major works for the voice were composed during the latter part of his career, between 1965 and 1980, and include four of the song-cycles recorded here. These are settings of poems by the composer himself, the Irish poet Louis MacNeice, and the composer’s good friend, Michael Armstrong, who lived for over 40 years in Jersey where he derived much inspiration from the sea and the surrounding landscape. Seven of the songs here receive their world première recording.
Britten’s song cycles form a substantial and important part of his work. The Seven Sonnets of Michelangelo belong to the period when Britten had begun to set foreign languages in an attempt to broaden his musical horizons. It is his first work composed exclusively for Peter Pears and deals with various aspects of love. Written in August 1945, soon after Britten had returned from a tour of German concentration camps with Yehudi Menuhin, The Holy Sonnets of John Donne captures some of the bleak intensity of that experience. In the eight settings of Thomas Hardy, Winter Words, written in 1953, there is no less abundance of the musical invention and imagery found in the earlier cycles, but the textures are generally leaner and more economical.
Britten’s five Canticles are marvellously vivid, intensely dramatic works. Although they were not designed to be performed together—they span virtually his whole career, from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s, and were composed for a variety of forces and singers—they form a remarkably effective sequence. Each is in some way inspired by religion and takes the form of an extended song, scena, miniature cantata or even, in the case of Abraham and Isaac, virtually a mini opera. All five were composed for the tenor voice of Peter Pears, and chart the personal and creative relationship between Britten and his most important muse.
Benjamin Britten was throughout his life drawn to folk-song, possessing a special gift for word-setting and vocal writing. This release and its companion (Naxos 8.557222), previously available on Collins Classics, present all the known folk-songs, in both their piano and orchestral arrangements, along with the volumes for guitar and harp. The three discs include 10 world première recordings of folksong arrangements published as recently as 2001.
Benjamin Britten was throughout his life drawn to folk-song, possessing a special gift for wordsetting and vocal writing. This second disc of the complete folk song arrangements focuses on the orchestral versions and the volumes for guitar and harp. This release and its companion (Naxos 8.557220–21), both previously available on Collins Classics, present all the known folksongs and include ten world première recordings of arrangements published as recently as 2001.
Gerald Finzi made an unrivalled contribution to British twentieth-century song-writing, especially in his settings of Thomas Hardy, his favourite poet. This second volume of Finzi songs includes two Hardy collections, the early By Footpath and Stile, for baritone and string quartet, and the mature setting Earth and Air and Rain, both of which share the poet’s preoccupation with death and the transience of life. Composed during the early 1930s, Earth and Air and Rain includes two of Finzi’s best-known songs, Rollicum-Rorum and To Lizbie Browne, a touching poem of regret for what might have been. Volume 1 is available on Naxos 8.557644.
Gerald Finzi made a significant contribution to British twentieth-century song-writing, especially with his settings of Thomas Hardy, his favourite poet, whom he set more than any other. Finzi’s empathy with Hardy’s bleak fatalism, his sense of transience and his anger at the suffering that mankind afflicts on fellow human beings permeates all three collections on this disc. Highlights include the dramatic I said to Love, as the poet squares up to his adversary and forecasts that ‘Mankind shall cease’, the haunting Fear no more the heat o’ the sun with its images of the dust to which ‘the golden lads and girls’ must all come, and the large-scale Channel Firing, arguably Finzi’s most ambitious Hardy setting.
Gerald Finzi made an unrivalled contribution to British twentieth-century song-writing, especially in his settings of Thomas Hardy, his favourite poet. This third and final volume of Finzi songs includes two Hardy settings, A Young Man’s Exhortation and Till Earth Outwears, which share the poet’s preoccupation with the ‘passing preciousness of dreams’, the transience of life and death itself. The posthumously published Oh Fair to see draws on various authors, from Christina Rossetti to Blunden and Bridges. Volumes 1 and 2 of the complete Finzi songs with piano are available on Naxos 8.557644 and 8.557963.
Originally released by Collins Classics as part of its English Songs Series, this recording offers a fascinating selection of the 72 solo songs Holst wrote across his entire compositional career. They range from the Six Songs from 1903–04, representative of the composer’s earlier styles, through the Vedic Hymns of 1907–08, Holst’s first confident use of ancient Hindu literature, the Four Songs for voice and violin, inspired by medieval lyrics and folk music modes, to the Twelve Humbert Wolfe settings of 1929, songs of ‘love, reflection and fantasy’. The disc concludes with The Heart Worships, one of Holst’s best loved songs.
Although the British composer Liza Lehmann had begun her career as a singer—she appeared in concerts and recitals, performing in oratorio and in various London concert series as well as overseas—damage to her vocal cords forced her to concentrate on composition, in which she had had an interest since early childhood, and on accompaniment. This collection from her extensive song output includes poems from Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses, once familiar in every nursery, her delightful mock-serious settings of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales and two Nonsense Songs from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Although the songs are short and light-hearted, they exhibit considerably more than just period charm. Liza Lehmann’s second son, Lesley, was the father of the conductor Steuart Bedford, who accompanies the songs here, as his grandmother once did, and of the composer David Bedford.
Rooted in the sound of the Victorian drawing-room ballad, Roger Quilter’s songs are elegant, refined, often private, always exquisite and without undue embellishment. Although Quilter did not draw on English folk-song as a musical resource in the way that Vaughan Williams and others did, he was very well aware of the heritage and himself arranged a variety of songs, ‘one of the most delicate and dangerous undertakings’. This recording, which includes several world premières, presents the Complete Folk-Song Arrangements and Complete Part-Songs for Women’s Voices.
Originally released by Collins Classics, this recording covers 40 years of Quilter’s career, ranging from the anonymous 15th century An old carol, by way of the great 16th- and 17th-century English poets, who inspired Quilter to some of his finest songs, to poems by Irish contemporaries. With over 100 songs to his name, Quilter holds a firm place in the history of English Romantic Song.
Originally released as part of The English Song Series on the Collins Classics label, this recording explores the vocal works of one of the pioneers of English Song. Arthur Somervell was the first composer to set Housman’s The Shropshire Lade. His setting of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence shows his ease at composing for children, while his familiarity today rests on his setting of Tennyson’s Maud. The ingenuity of Somervell’s piano writing combined with his remarkably memorable vocal lines has ensured that his music retains a consistent freshness.
Originally released as part of The English Song Series on the Collins Classics label, this recording includes major works by one of the key figures in English vocal music. Although best known today for his larger-scale and symphonic works, Vaughan Williams was throughout his life an enthusiast and collected of English folk music, something that led to a lifelong commitment to writing for voice and piano. The songs here range from the very beginning to the near end of the composer’s career and include the famous Housman settings On Wenlock Edge.
Although Vaughan Williams is best known as a symphonist and for large-scale choral works, the essence of his music can also be found in his songs, which demonstrate a peerless sensitivity to the beauty of the English language. Songs of Travel, composed in 1904 at a time when the composer’s personal voice was emerging, have been described as a “kind of English Winterreise”. Together with The House of Life, settings of six sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, they are the first to mark a significant advance from the Edwardian parlour song towards true English art song. Volume 3 of the Naxos English Song Series (8.557114) features Vaughan Williams’ famous Housman settings On Wenlock Edge.
Originally released as part of The English Song Series on the Collins Classics label, this recording explores Walton’s most important vocal works including Anon in Love, a setting of Elizabethan love lyrics originally composed for Sir Peter Pears and Julian Bream, and A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table. The youthful composer’s brilliance is also underlined in small gems such as The Winds, a poem by Swinburne which the precocious Walton wrote at 16 years of age.
The programme of this release, previously available on the Collins Classics label, reflects the wide variety of vocal styles and moods of Warlock’s music. The centrepiece is Warlock’s heartfelt and atmospheric setting of W.B. Yeats’s The Curlew. Set beside this are Warlock’s boisterous drinking songs, as well as a number of more sober individual songs. This programme is an excellent introduction to one of the most interesting English composers of the first half of the last century.