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John Quinn
MusicWeb International, February 2013

I enjoyed this disc enormously. Susan Bickley’s singing gives consistent pleasure. Her tone is full and warm…She understands these songs and sings them with great sensitivity and intelligence. Iain Burnside offers a fine contribution…his pianism is excellent and contributes significantly to the success of the recital.

The sound on this occasion is very satisfactory. The documentation includes very useful notes by Roderic Dunnett.

…this is a very fine recital containing many first rate songs. Lovers of English song should not hesitate. © 2013 MusicWeb International Read complete review

Hilary Finch
BBC Music Magazine, December 2009

“This recording is also invaluable because Susan Bickley shares with Gurney a direct and instinctive response to the inflections, metres and emotional colours of the English language. Perceptively partnered by Iain Burnside…[there are] many favourites, and many discoveries here: none of them to be missed.

Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, November 2009

An impressive disc that amply demonstrates Gurney’s greatness

You might count Ivor Gurney as the “lost British composer”. Tragically, he died in 1937 having spent most of the inter-war years in an asylum. Already in 1913 he had shown signs of bipolar instability, but Stanford considered Gurney the pupil of his who most clearly displayed the signs of “genius”, no small claim when you remember how many fine composers Stanford taught. Certainly, this collection of30 songs, the1atest in the Naxos English Song series, demonstrates that genius, above all in his feeling for English words, which is also demonstrated in his own poetry.

The writer of the excellent notes on this disc suggests very perceptively that Gurney’s feeling for triplet hemiolas in his settings may owe something to his training as a chorister in Gloucester Cathedral, or even to his love of Brahms. Sadly, too few of these songs are well known. The one most familiar to me is “I will go with my father a-ploughing”, folk-like and exuberant, which Dame Janet Baker included in one of her very first recordings.

Otherwise the settings of John Masefield are especially memorable, notably “By a Bierside” with a wonderful final climax, superbly conveyed here by Susan Bickley. Another poet close to Gurney was Edward Thomas, best-known for the glorious poem “Adlestrop” and here represented by some of the most touching of the songs. It is interesting too that Gurney sets “The Bonnie Earl of Murray” with a real Scottish tang, a song, incidentally, that Brahms set earlier.

Wherever you turn, these songs offer illumination and refreshment, splendidly captured not only by Susan Bickley but by her ever-sensitive accompanist, Iain Burnside.

Mark Sealey
Classical Net, October 2009

Ivor Gurney (1890–1937) is one of a handful of highly original composers in the English pastoral tradition who are either largely misunderstood or—like Havergal Brian certainly and, to some extent, Gerald Finzi—unduly neglected despite having written music of great beauty, originality and insight. Indeed, Gurney’s teacher, Stanford, assessed the composer’s talents as those of a genius. Scarred by his experiences in the First World War, it’s also generally accepted that Gurney (who was also a prolific poet in his own right) had not realized his potential by the time of his premature death.

With Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Holst, Gurney shared a love of the rich and historically resonant West Country—particularly Gloucestershire and the Cotswolds. His songs are infused with this, and with the rhythms and patterns of the vernacular speech of the region’s inhabitants. Yet Gurney is successful in blending this love with almost artful (at least to our ears nearly a century later) sophistication in his choice of themes and their expression.

These themes are those to which the Georgian poets and writers were drawn, and which sound so natural to English ears: loss and pain; childhood and memory; the land and our relationship with it; the particularities of our experience of nature: the wind, the night, the moon; and the extent to which anyone (which meant everyone) affected by the slaughter of the War had perhaps somewhat wistfully to adopt a more carefree attitude to life’s ups and downs.

Really to perform these 30 short songs (none is longer than four minutes) at all convincingly performers have to be fully in sympathy (or at the very least completely empathize with and understand) the implications of these considerations of idiom. The delivery cannot be histrionic or self-consciously exaggerated. Nor even have a hint at mockery. Nor condescension (Gurney ended his life in a mental hospital). But really enter his world; share his concerns; be taken by his worries and joys. Above all, perhaps, recognize that Gurney’s songs evolved from an English tradition that originated in the concentrated world of the Tudor soloist. At the same time performers need to find every note that’s modern and respect its own sense in its own right.

Mezzo Susan Bickley and pianist Iain Burnside go a good way towards satisfying such criteria. The pace and togetherness are exemplary. Neither wilting nor lilting, as might happen with a spurious attempt to draw out Gurney’s few (and perhaps unconscious?) ‘folk’ elements. Nor maudlin. Yet nothing too spectacularly idiosyncratic, despite a superficial reaction to the (common, popular) reputation of Gurney. Their partnership, and imaginative interpretation of the meaning of the word, "accompaniment" can be enjoyed throughout: listen to the piano’s role in songs such as Cathleen Ni Houlihan [tr.16]. And their collective sensitivity to the Five Elizabethan Songs [tr.s 6–10] and perhaps even more-so in The Apple Orchard [tr.11]. As well as the tenderness of the Cradle Song [tr.17], of whose amazing range of emotion and resolution they really make the most…Technically [Bickley] is close to faultless with some lovely held high notes and always the right control, which lead to our feeling the greatest confidence in her approach…Gurney wrote over 300 songs. Here is a selection that will please many. The acoustic is clean, if a little brilliant, perhaps. The booklet has a commentary on each song and some useful background on Gurney himself. It also has the texts. As a contribution in Naxos’ ongoing English Song series the selection is a good and representative one. By the end Bickley and Burnside have created an atmosphere largely faithful to Gurney’s creative genius (if Stanford is to be taken literally)…the conviction and subdued passion of Edward Thomas’ Lights Out [tr.30], for instance, will stay with the listener long after the CD is returned to its case.

Emma Baker
Classic FM, September 2009

What’s wonderful about this performance is the way singer and pianist respond so sensitively to Gurney’s word-painting and musical inflections. Susan Bickley colours every long-breathed phrase imaginatively and Iain Burnside’s accompaniment is subtle and thoughtful.

John T Hughes
International Record Review, September 2009

“Susan Bickley and Iain Burnside have put together a well-balanced recital of the inward-looking, the tender and the effervescent…This is subtly and winningly executed by both artists.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2009

The story of Ivor Gurney is harrowing and culminates with his death in a mental institution at the age of forty-seven. Yet to many he was the finest British song-writer in the years directly following the First World War. He had served at the front-line, was wounded and gassed before being sent home to recuperate. Yet the period that followed, 1919-21, was his most fertile as a composer, leaving more than three hundred songs on his premature death. He even managed to compose while in battle, and if never quite regaining the freshness we find in the Five Elizabethan Songs composed in his student days, the sheer musicianship in his writing has never been surpassed in the field of English song. The horrors of war could not completely dull his wit, The apple orchard, from 1919,being almost a light cabaret song. Of course it would be nice if the story concluded with Gurney being famous, but that is not so as evidenced by these being the first recordings of The bonnie Earl of Murray and The Cherry Trees. My own favourites include the sad Last Hours, with its sombre and chromatic backdrop, and Lights out, words that remind of the inevitability and grief of death. The disc contains thirty tracks which form a fair representation of his song output, and they are performed by Susan Bickley, a young British mezzo with a distinctive vocal quality, her intonation so impeccably clean, and diction immaculate. Her choice of songs fall happily in her vocal range and emerge with unforced beauty. Gurney’s piano parts are themselves a wonderful achievement, characterising and commenting on the words. They are incomparably played by one of the best-known pianists in the world of British song, Iain Burnside. The sound is ideal, so please Naxos can we have more.

BBC Music Magazine

A first-rate introduction to the composer, sensitively performed by Susan Bickley and pianist Iain Burnside, one of the country’s leading Gurney experts © BBC Music Magazine

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