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Down by the Salley Gardens: Songs by Herbert Howells, Roger Quilter, Ivor Gurney, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gerald Finzi, Lennox Berkeley, Charles Villiers Stanford, Peter Warlock, Victor Hely-Hutchinson, Henry Purcell (arr. B. Britten, M. Tippett)
Bejun Mehta (Counter-tenor), Julius Drake (Piano)
Recorded in Berlin (October 2010) – 66’33
Harmonia mundi HMC 902093 – Texts and notes in English, French, and German

We associate the counter-tenor voice with works composed in the 18th century or earlier, or with specific and rather unusual roles such as Oberon in Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This CD breaks new ground for the voice type as it consists of early 20th century songs by British composers (this includes three songs by Henry Purcell – two of them arranged by Britten, one by Michael Tippett). There are 23 songs by no less than 11 composers born between 1852 (Sir Charles Villiers Stanford) and 1913 (Britten).

The composer with the largest number of pieces is Roger Quilter, with six, all based on Shakespeare. Other poets represented include Thomas Hardy, William Blake, Percy Shelley, and Walter de la Mare.

The songs are not grouped by composer or arranged thematically. The result is a varied and well-paced ramble. It begins sombrely with Herbert Howells’s King David in which Mehta’s vibrato – which overall adds richness to its tone – almost becomes a beat (the same thing occurs in other slow, serious songs such as Lord, what is man? by Purcell/Britten.)

The CD’s title song, based on a folkish poem by W. B. Yeats, is composed by Ivor Gurney, rather than the more familiar Britten version.

My favourite number on the disk is its longest: Stanford’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci to the poem of John Keats. The ballad is recounted as a gripping mini-drama.

Offsetting the many serious songs are amusing tidbits such as Warlock’s Jillian of Berry, a half-minute lark about a girl who exchanges beer for kisses, and Hely-Hutchinson’s Set in the manner of Handel. This turns out to be Old Mother Hubbard delivered in high tragickal style. The booklet’s rather dense but informative notes explain this was one of a number of nursery rhymes set in the style of well-known composers, just as decades later comedian Dudley Moore set Little Miss Muffett in the style of Britten.

Familiar chestnuts include Vaughan Williams’ Linden Lea delivered in an engagingly jaunty manner, and his Bright is the ring of words, which sounds a bit odd delivered by other than a baritone.

As one would expect, Julius Drake’s accompaniment is a full partner in the performance. Bejun Mehta has had another career as a recording producer and, while he was not the producer of this disk, I’m sure the recorded results were closely scrutinized - and to good effect.

The counter-tenor voice is still controversial in some quarters; its place in Handel’s operas is under debate to cite one example. This disk could well prove to be a groundbreaker for counter-tenors who want to explore the repertoire that hitherto has been the province of more "conventional" voice types.

Michael Johnson




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