British art song in the late 20th century

msvcd92025The first half of the 20th century was a sort of golden age for British art song unparalleled since the days of Purcell and Blow.  There are works by, inter alia, Finzi, Britten Vaughan Williams and Butterworth that are still staples of the repertoire.  After the second world war though it starts to tail off and I’m hard pressed to think of songs/song cycles from the last two or three decades of the century that have become at all popular.  In fact, it seems to me, the most popular art song like works from this period are stage works which are based on a cycle of songs like Maxwell Davies’ Miss. Donnithorne’s Maggot. I was interested then to come across a 1999 CD of (actual) songs for voice and piano written since 1970.  The CD is Peripheral Visions by soprano Alison Grant and pianist Katherine Durran.  

There’s a generous 76 minutes of music on the disk with a distinct bias to Scotland.  It starts off with James MacMillan’s Three Scottish Songs which are settings of rather depressing poems by William Soutar from the 1930s and 40s.  The texts are in “Braid Scots” and the settings are almost a pastiche of traditional Scots folksong.  I think I prefer the real thing.  It’s also a good thging that the texts are findable on-line because there is no digital booklet for this CD and a high soprano singing Braid Sots isn’t the most decipherable thing ever. 

Elizabeth Maconchy’s Sun, Moon, Stars sets texts by the 17th century English divine Thomas Traherne.  These are essentially mystical poems and they get a quite abrasive, modern treatment.  There’s nothing faux traditional here but I didn’t find them especially engaging either.

Judith Weir’s Scottish Minstrelsy sets five of the Child ballads (including the one “where the guy gets killed”) so the texts will be familiar to many.  The settings are anything but traditional.  The piano parts; which vary from loud, atonal and abrasive to quite ethereal, are quite independent of the vocal line.  That, in turn, is very broken up with some far from natural phrasing.  

Jackson Gabriel sets the 7th century Irish text usually known as  “Liadan’s Lament”.  It’s quite interesting with a minimalist, meditative feel to it.  It’s followed by Robin Holloway’s Wherever we may be which sets five poems by Robert Graves in a very modern way that ranges quite widely in mood from meditative to in your face.

There’s a short piano interlude with two pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies; the well known Farewell to Stromness and the less well known but not dissimilar Yesnaby Ground.  This is followed by Nicola LeFanu’s setting of C. Day Lewis’ But Stars Remaining.  This is sung unaccompanied and requires a pretty wide variety of extended vocal techniques.

The disk closes with George Nicholson’s setting of four short texts by Swift, Carroll, Anon and Wyndham-Lewis.  One might expect some humour here but I just found more rather academic showiness.

The performances sound fine (though what is one to compare them to?) and the recording quality is normal for a CD of the period.  It’s available as a physical CD or as MP3 or standard res FLAC.  I think the physical CD has a booklet which would be reason enough to o that route.

All in all, if this is representative of the art song output of British composers in the late 20th century I can see why not much oof it has entered the standard repertoire.

Catalogue number: Metier MSVCD92025

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