I was browsing the latest Naxos marketing material and was really intrigued by what claimed to be a disk of Tennyson and Housman settings by Sir Arthur Sullivan. It sounded too good to be true and it was. The music was by Sir Arthur Somervell; whose Housman settings I had previously encountered.
The longest work on the disk is called Maud and consists of settings of thirteen of the poems from Tennyson’s monodrama that was extremely popular in the late 19th century. I don’t get Tennyson. I get that he was popular (but then so were Dickens and cholera) but it’s an aesthetic; morbid and sentimental more than dark, that just doesn’t do it for me. Somervell’s settings are not inconsistent with the mood of the text but they are, frankly, dull and predictable. There’s an attempt to elevate the music above the level of contemporary parlour ballads but Somervell doesn’t seem to have either the melodic or rhythmic invention to really pull it off.
The Housman is worse. There are ten poems from A Shropshire Lad; some of them are common to the more familiar Butterworth setting, others not. The big problem here is that, besides being musically rather dull, Somervell just doesn’t get Housman. I’m going to quote Roderick Williams, who is the singer here, because he absolutely nails it:
What intrigues me, especially having sung later settings of Housman (Somervell was, after all, the first musician to set him to music) by Butterworth, Ireland and others, is how the subtext in Housman’s poetry is completely absent in Somervell’s music. The poetry is taken absolutely at face value. I feel that our sophisticated, dare I say ‘woke’, 21st-century sensibilities are more alert to the possibility of coded, ironic subtext within his tightly constructed lines. However much I might want to draw out such subtext, my instinct is that it was not part of Somervell’s intention to convey any such thing. I try to be faithful to this and perform accordingly.
The disk is completed by a setting of Poe’s A Kingdom by the Sea and a rather odd lullabye about sheep. Neither come close to redeeming the disk.
I think Roderick Williams with Susie Allan on piano do as good a job with this material as one could hope. Williams is a very good singer and his diction is flawless. It’s also interesting to compare his “naive” approach to the Housman with Chris Maltman’s more dramatic version on the Somervell disk in Naxos’ English Song Series. I prefer Maltman but I can see where Williams is coming from.
Technically there’s nothing wrong with the recording which was made in Menuhin Hall, Yehudi Menuhin School in July 2019. The documentation is excellent with full texts and considerable thoughtful commentary.
One for fans of Victoriana I think.