Songs volume 2
In 2022 Gary Higginson gave a warm if (slightly guarded) welcome to the preceding volume in this series; for myself, though he was long a stalwart of nearby music festivals and, as such, my ‘local compose’, this was my first encounter with Dodgson’s songs.
Alas, first impressions were not that encouraging. Stylistically think very roughly Britten/Alwyn rather than, say, Tippett: not exactly recitative but not quite straightforwardly tuneful either. The title work – five settings of Louis MacNiece for soprano and baritone – seemed to impose unnecessarily wayward melodic shapes on verse which already has its own decidedly strong musical character. While far from enhancing or echoing the meaning of the verse, it often seems to actively work against it. In his detailed and enthusiastic notes Robert Matthew-Walker makes a strong case for what he describes as the composer’s operatic approach to word-setting, so I remain open-minded. It is true that repeated hearings have proved more rewarding, especially with the final song, which at six minutes long definitely demands to be heard on its own terms.
And anyway, blow me down, Dodgson then produces a setting of Blake’s The Lamb of artless simplicity and directness, and all the better for it, and such is true of much of the rest of the disc. A setting of a Romanian Gypsy Prayer is brief, stately, and just ravishingly beautiful. Three Australian Bush Ballads are in an appropriately robust faux sing-song style (with a twist) and the composer even manages to elucidate a tortuous text by Peter Quennell that hardly seems an obvious choice for music. Many of us will recall the poems of Charles Causley from school, and here in Riley and Co are four of them – including Causley’s great ‘hit’ Timothy Winters. It is true that the presence of the accompanying recorder (plus guitar) may also evoke school-day memories, but if I can overlook those teeth-grating associations, surely anyone can. Again, the style is perhaps deceptively simple, straightforward and immediately enjoyable.
Along with a handful of other individual songs the disc also features four of a set of six Bagatelles for piano, originally composed for Bernard Roberts. These are comparatively laconic, but thoughtful and probing, and I am not sure they are the tracks to which I would most often return.
As ever with SOMM, both the performances (by some prestigious names) and the warm lifelike recording are impeccable. No indication anywhere of an imminent Volume Three, but such is definitely to be hoped for!
Review by Kevin Mandry