31 October 2020

BEST ART SONG RECORDING of 2020: Benjamin Britten, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, Roger Quilter, Ian Venables, & Peter Warlock — A LAD’S LOVE (Brian Giebler, tenor; Steven McGhee, piano; Bridge Records 9542)

BEST ART SONG RECORDING of 2020: A LAD'S LOVE (Bridge Records 9542)BENJAMIN BRITTEN (1913 – 1976), IVOR GURNEY (1890 – 1937), JOHN IRELAND (1879 – 1962), ROGER QUILTER (1877 – 1953), IAN VENABLES (born 1955), and PETER WARLOCK (1894 – 1930): a lad’s loveBrian Giebler, tenor; Steven McGhee, piano; Reginald Mobley, countertenor; Katie Hyun and Ben Russell, violin; Jessica Meyer, viola; Michael Katz, cello [Recorded in Drew University Concert Hall, Madison, New Jersey, USA, 27 – 29 June 2019; Bridge Records 9542; 1 CD, 70:43; Available from Bridge Records and major music retailers]

Artists’ philosophical and psychological connections with the music that they perform is an integral component of the creative process; perhaps more integral to Art Song than to any other genre of Classical Music. A singer can become immersed in the pageantry of opera and the tumult of the concert hall, but an Art Song recital offers few distractions from a singer’s relationships with the music being performed. A song does not wear a jersey displaying its name and number: the singer must communicate to the audience which position a song plays and how it functions within its team. It is suggested that the essence of a composer’s artistry is most clearly and meaningfully perceived in chamber music, in which the interactions among small ensembles of instruments sometimes reflect a composer’s perspectives on artists’ bonds with one another and humanity. Art Song is a singer’s chamber music, the domain in which the voice can find no shelter in lavish orchestrations and complex stage business. It is in a performance of Art Song that a perceptive listener can discern a singer from an artist.

The prevailing ethos of a lad’s love, tenor Brian Giebler’s and pianist Steven McGhee’s entrancing Bridge Records recording of British Art Songs composed since 1900, is the abandonment of platitudes and polite mannerisms in evaluating the passions, joys, and disappointments of youth. The first moments of a lad’s love demonstrate that Giebler possesses a beautiful, evenly-produced voice capable of communicating an expansive array of emotions, but each subsequent phrase further immerses the listener in the perceptibly personal narrative created by the young tenor’s singing. His vocalism enjoys in McGhee’s playing true musical synergy, the instruments’ sounds seeming to emerge from a single artistic personality. Neither singer nor pianist leads or follows: there is in the seventy minutes of a lad’s love a laudable unity of purpose, the artists’ serendipitous collaboration effecting performances guided not by musicians’ egos but by the temperaments of the music itself.

With the notable exception of Henry Purcell, whose work is as inclusively European as that of any of his domestic or foreign contemporaries, many composers whose lives and careers were centered in the British Isles have endured the allegation that their music is ‘too British’ to achieve lasting success and popularity beyond the United Kingdom’s borders. This charge is made even of a work as universal in scope as Sir Edward Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius, which, moreover, has sometimes been deemed too inherently Catholic to appeal to its creators’ own countrymen. Perhaps there are aspects of British cultures, histories, and landscapes that cannot be fully understood or appreciated by outsiders, but does ignorance of the county’s customs and geography lessen the beauty of a work like Ivor Gurney’s Gloucestershire Rhapsody?

Born in Gloucester in 1890 and laid to rest in a small borough of his native city only forty-seven years later, Ivor Gurney was, alongside Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, amongst England’s foremost poetic chroniclers of the Great War, during the course of which Gurney was twice wounded. Troubled throughout his too-brief life by recurrent mental illness, almost certainly exacerbated by his wartime experiences, Gurney often contended with pervasive melancholia that manifested in both his poetry and his music. The rare composer of Art Song who turned as frequently to his own texts as to words by other writers, Gurney brought to the creation of songs a singular sensibility for recognizing the musical potential of words.

In his singing of Gurney’s music, Giebler exhibits similar propensity, his vocalism distinguished by impeccable musicianship and reliably secure intonation. North American singers’ performances of British songs sometimes sound frustratingly pompous, as though there is a need to imitate a grandeur of utterance not found in the American personality, but Giebler approaches Gurney’s and all of the songs on a lad’s love with stylistic cogency, his interpretations kaleidoscopically expressive but never exaggerated.

Written in 1919, after the composer returned from the front, recovered from his battle injuries, and began studying with Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, Gurney’s song cycle Ludlow and Teme was inspired not by his own verses but by those of Alfred Edward Housman (1859 – 1936), whose collection of poems entitled A Shropshire Lad is as significant to British Art Song as the poetry of Goethe and Heine are to German Lieder. The texts used in Ludlow and Teme are quintessentially Housmanesque, juxtaposing conflicting human emotions with deceptively serene evocations of the English countryside. Scored for tenor, piano, and string quartet, the cycle’s seven songs disclose a fellow poet’s insightful handling of words’ intrinsic tunefulness.

In the performance of Ludlow and Teme on this disc, the string players—violinists Katie Hyun and Ben Russell, violist Jessica Meyer, and cellist Michael Katz—execute their parts with consistent technical acumen and a permeating sense of true participation in interpreting the songs, their sounds allying with the tenor’s voice and the pianist’s playing to establish in the opening song, ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow,’ an environment of emotional sincerity. This sentimental directness persists in ‘Far in a western brookland,’ sung with expertly-managed breath control that facilitates artful phrasing. The pensiveness of Giebler’s reading of ‘’Tis time, I think, by Wenlock town’ ably partners his realization of the beguiling potential of ‘Ludlow fair.’ The gossamer beauty of his voicing of ‘On the idle hill of summer’ lends the imagery of the text picturesque potency, creating for the listener a tableau of the idyllic Shropshire countryside. Into that Acadian setting comes a vulnerable youth via Giebler’s engaging, energetic ‘When I was one-and-twenty.’ The subtleties of Housman’s words and Gurney’s music in ‘The Lent Lily’ find in Giebler and his colleagues interpreters whose artistic camaraderie is uniquely suited to elucidating their shadows and smiles.

It was during his wartime service that Gurney composed ‘In Flanders,’ a setting of a haunting text by Frederick William Harvey. Here performed in an arrangement incorporating the string quartet, the song euphoniously presents a harrowing but harmonious assessment of the costs of war. The horrors of the Great War are now tempered by the passing of a century, but the emotional toll of Gurney’s experiences is felt in Giebler’s performance. His becomes the voice of lost innocence, intoning an elegy for the innumerable lives destroyed by conflict.

Giebler is joined in his performance of Benjamin Britten’s Opus 51 Canticle II by countertenor Reginald Mobley. Composed in 1952 for Britten’s partner, tenor Sir Peter Pears, and the eminent English contralto Kathleen Ferrier, the second of the composer’s five Canticles recounts Fifteenth-Century Chester mystery plays’ depiction of the Old Testament narrative of the patriarch Abraham’s willingness to obey a divine command to slay his son Isaac, a command now argued by rabbinical scholars to have been understood by Abraham as a test, Providential doctrine of the sanctity of life effectively prohibiting human sacrifice.

Giebler and Mobley prove to be worthy successors of Pears and Ferrier, the younger tenor’s timbre more ingratiating than Pears’s and both he and Mobley excelling as interpreters of Britten’s complex music. Aided by McGhee’s complete fluency in the composer’s musical language, the voices intertwine mesmerizingly when imparting God’s instructions to Abraham, the unaffected directness of their articulation of ‘That thou lovest the best of all’ lending the cruelty of the mandate profoundly personal poignancy. The youthfulness of Giebler’s tones emphasize Abraham’s humanity, lifting the biblical figure out of antiquity with a touching suggestion of a still-young father grappling with the momentousness of the task assigned to him. Nevertheless, there is an aptly Brittensian flicker of irony in Giebler’s delivery of ‘Make Thee ready, my dear darling, / For we must do a little thing.’

Mobley is but one of a number of gifted countertenors who have sung Isaac’s lines in the decades since Canticle II was first performed, but his singing in this performance demonstrates that he is one of the best. The naturalness of his singing is conspicuous: he resorts to none of the technical trickery that some of his fellow countertenors employ in their vocal production. There is little resemblance between Mobley’s and Ferrier’s voices, but the wrenching immediacy with which the countertenor sings ‘Would God that my mother were here with me!’ qualifies him as Ferrier’s peer as an intuitive musical storyteller. Throughout this account of Canticle II, paced by McGhee with unerring sensitivity to Britten’s markings and the emotional flow of the text, Mobley probes the words’ subtleties, expressing the son’s fear, disbelief, and sense of betrayal with unpretentious pathos. He, Giebler, and McGhee circumvent the pitfalls of Canticle II’s centuries-old parlance, effectuating a plaintive, superbly musical account that is never twee or didactic.

Composed during four turbulent years that witnessed the eruption of World War Two but not published as a collection until 1997, Britten’s Six Settings of W.H. Auden offer an intriguing glimpse of the artists’ working relationship. Britten’s collaboration with Auden produced works as seminal in the composer’s œuvre and in British music in general as Our Hunting Fathers and Hymn to St. Cecilia and markedly influenced other projects, notably the post-Albert Herring operas. In the performances of these Auden songs on a lad’s love, Giebler and McGhee fashion a cohesive narrative that capitalizes on the characteristic metaphysical complexities of the writer’s texts. The gentle anticipation that suffuses Giebler’s voicing of ‘To lie flat on the back’ gives way to stoic acquiescence in ‘Night covers up the rigid land.’ Nature surges through McGhee’s playing in ‘Fish in the unruffled lakes’ and ‘The sun shines down,’ complementing Giebler’s concentration on the specificity of Britten’s tone painting. Voice and piano parallel the discourse between the physical and emotional realms that enlivens ‘What’s in your mind’ and ‘Underneath the abject willow.’ The intricacies of Britten’s handling of Auden’s words are devotedly observed in their performances of this music, but Giebler and McGhee broaden the songs’ interpretive contexts by projecting rousing spontaneity.

The words of Peter Warlock’s 1922 song ‘In an Arbour Green’ were taken from a modernization of a Sixteenth-Century text by Robert (or Richard) Wever. The composer’s adaptation of the text lends the poet’s conceits contexts as relevant in 2020 as in 1922. Born Philip Arnold Heseltine, Warlock enjoyed little tranquility in the thirty-six years of his life. Like many of his songs, ‘In an Arbour Green’ was composed during the most productive period of Warlock’s career, when his creativity was spurred by time spent with Béla Bartók in Wales. The prevailing ambience of ‘In an Arbour Green’ is decidedly English, but Giebler and McGhee survey the Continental accents in Warlock’s musical idiom, especially those influenced by Gabriel Fauré. Giebler’s singing of Warlock’s compact song rivals the work of noted masters of chanson like Hugues Cuénod, the liaisons of words and music rendered with finesse.

The earliest piece on a lad’s love, Roger Quilter’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’ (Opus 3, No. 1), dates from 1905 and utilizes an oft-quoted text by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Like Gurney, Quilter possessed a gift for writing music that amplifies the meanings of words rather than merely accompanying their sounds. With this performance, Giebler and McGhee argue persuasively that Quilter achieved the summit of his artistry as a composer of songs with ‘Love’s Philosophy,’ the rhythmic pulse of the pianist’s playing echoing the cadences of the text. Singing in English sometimes elicits from vocalists open tones and over-enunciation more appropriate to musical theater than to Art Song, but the evenness of Giebler’s transitions through the passaggio facilitates wholly organic clarity of diction. His singing of ‘Love’s Philosophy’ is shaped not by artifice but by genuine affinity for Quilter’s writing.

Both John Ireland’s ‘Ladslove,’ excerpted from his 1920 – ’21 collection of songs pointedly entitled The Land of Lost Content, and his 1927 cycle We’ll to the Woods no More are also settings of verses from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. Giebler and McGhee traverse ‘Ladslove’ with eloquence typical of their work on this disc, the artistic propinquity between voice and piano revealing fascinating details of Ireland’s thoughtful interpretations of words. ‘We’ll to the Woods no More’ is sung with palpable feeling, voice and piano creating a sense of solace. Tenor and pianist offer a strikingly intimate account of ‘In Boyhood,’ seeming to share memories of their own lives. Interestingly, Ireland treated the third of the texts comprising We’ll to the Woods no More, ‘Spring will not wait’ (the second and third stanzas of ‘We’ll to the Woods no More,’ the thirty-ninth poem in A Shropshire Lad), as a piece for piano that explores the moods of the text rather than as a conventional song with voice. Nonetheless, McGhee traces the melodic line with a singer’s attention to textual inflections: ‘the gold that I never see’ of which Housman wrote shimmers in McGhee’s playing.

The sole living composer whose music is sampled on a lad’s love, Ian Venables is represented by the affecting ‘Because I liked you better’ from his 2004 cycle Songs of Eternity and Sorrow (Opus 36a), performed here in its original form for voice, piano, and string quartet. Like so many of his musical ancestors, Venables found musical stimulus in Housman’s poetry. His setting of the lines ‘And say the lad that loved you / Was one that kept his word’ epitomizes Venables’s emotionally pragmatic style, advancing the legacy of Ivor Gurney, of whose estate the younger composer is a trustee, into the Twenty-First Century. His voice combining mellifluously with the pianist’s and quartet’s tones, Giebler sings ‘Because I liked you better’ with the candid warmth of a lad’s love.

Especially in an age in which funding for the Performing Arts is critically imperiled, it must never be forgotten that many proposed recording projects never come to fruition, burdening those that do with a heightened responsibility to justify their existence. The disheartening events of 2020 impose an even greater duty upon new recordings, that of providing listeners with elusive comfort, hope, and joy. Suffused with alluring, graceful singing, a lad’s love is a recital that earns the opportunity to be heard, but this is a disc that succeeds and satisfies in diverse ways. None of a lad’s love’s successes is more consequential than its declaration that song, when performed with love, can be a refuge from humanity’s horrors.