Riveting performances by the English tenor Ben Johnson, winner of the Audience prize in the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, make this album of little-known English songs a delight.
The English song renaissance started comparatively late and from the 1880s it built on the Lieder traditions of Schubert, Schumann and Wolf. Composers such as Parry, Stanford, Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland, Quilter, Finzi and Britten went on to produce many finely wrought and serious works, often on pastoral themes. This was against a background of popular, tuneful ballads which were churned out in the mid-1800s as parlour music or for ballad concerts.
The tenor Ben Johnson and pianist James Baillieu have uncovered several little-known gems from this period in this attractive album. While these 21 light pieces are unashamedly sentimental they are nevertheless superbly crafted and are given here the serious treatment they deserve.
Johnson is well suited to the task; he has a clear, warm and lyrical tone without a cloying sweetness or a reedy quality to it and he comfortably flits between changes of mood and dynamics. And with Baillieu’s sensitive musicianship, this is a winning partnership.
One of the highlights is Arthur Sullivan’s The Lost Chord. This once famous parlour song has been mercilessly mocked over the years as the epitome of Victorian rectitude (and who could forget Victor Borge finding the “lost chord” at the piano in one of his comedy routines?). But Johnson’s fine, impassioned reading is genuinely moving – it’s no wonder that it was one of the most popular songs of its day.
Another stirring song is How Lovely are Thy Dwellings (1908) from Samuel Liddle, a popular ballad composer who studied with Stanford. Liddle’s peroration is not as satisfying as in The Lost Chord but Johnson gives a bold and spirited reading.
Eric Coates was a popular composer of light music whose music is still familiar today through his Dam Busters March and A Sleepy Lagoon. Birdsongs at Eventide (1926) is a gushing romantic song which would not be out of place in a musical and it is brought to a satisfying end on sustained high note – clearly not a song for amateur performers! Betty and Johnny (1913) is a witty character song in which Johnson clearly has fun with the folksy voice characterisations. Another piece which allows Johnson’s comic talents to shine is Henry King (1909), a setting by Liza Lehmann of one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales – a genuinely funny tale, appropriately delivered ‘tongue in cheek’.
Two striking pieces are included from Amy Woodforde-Finden’s, Indian Love Lyrics, ‘exotic’ pieces which are a pastiche of South Asian and European romantic music. With a rippling accompaniment that seems to be borrowed from Chopin, Til I Wake, is a passionate and haunting affair, Kashmiri Song is a beautiful love song; both are delivered with a rich sense of longing.
The album appropriately opens and closes with two utterly charming settings of Shakespeare’s Orpheus with his Lute by Edward German (1892) and Vaughan Williams (1901). The Vaughan Williams setting is the more technically demanding of the two with the voice exposed in the higher ranges and it rounds of the album beautifully.
The sound quality on this album is superb: well-balanced with a warm ambiance and a resonant piano which never sounds too close.
Performance: 4 stars
Recording: 5 stars
Published 14 March 2016 on primephonic
Ben Johnson (tenor), James Baillieu (piano)
Composers: Edward Elgar, Edward German, Wilfred Ernest Sanderson, Muriel Herbert, Charles Villiers Stanford, Herbert Hughes, Liza Lehmann, Amy Woodforde-Finden, Michael Head, Samuel Liddle, Thomas Dunhill, Arthur Sullivan, Eric Coates, Ivy Mason Whipp, Ralph Vaughan Williams.
Opus Arte BBDOACD9032D