James Gilchrist tenor
Nathan Williamson piano

Divine Art  dddx 21119

This disc has been a surprising delight. I say ‘surprising’ because although I knew Thomas Pitfield was a composer I had no idea that his songs (and there are over 150) were so interesting, distinctive and attractive. Some of his works have appeared on CD (chamber works on Heritage and piano concertos on Naxos) and this collection of 28 songs is a welcome addition.

Most of the songs were written for friends and colleagues, and occasionally his songs were included in recitals by Peter Pears and Owen Brannigan. Tenor James Gilchrist brings them all to life with wonderful clarity of diction and a full range of dynamics and expression. The quiet hushed ending of By the Dee at night is a good example. He is well supported by the pianist Nathan Williamson. 

Pitfield taught composition at the Royal Manchester College of Music from 1947 to 1973 and among his pupils was John Ogdon, and it seems that he was always composing. His output includes concertos for various instruments, sonatas and chamber music including smaller scale works for amateurs. Works for professionals include pieces for Leon Goossens and Osian Ellis. He was lucky to be taken up by Herbert Foss at OUP who published much of his music.

To my ears the songs inhabit a musical world somewhere between Warlock and Britten, although Pitfield was also influenced by Vaughan Williams, Grainger and Delius. In an old country church begins with the line The belfry clock ticks quietly and the piano represents that ticking. This reminds me of Britten’s The little old table where the piano represents the creaking. Some songs are stark, such as Winter Evening Dunham Park (to his own text) and some flow with the emphasis on melody (Your frail sad leaves and Song of compassion).

There are three folk song arrangements including The Carrion Crow with a Warlock-like accompaniment and Faithful Johnny with Brittenesque piano part. The recital also includes Skeleton Bride which is scored for reciter and piano. There are two settings of his own poem Lingering Music; I would like to know the dates of composition. The recital ends with Four Little Songs, each under a minute long and gently witty.

The booklet includes all texts and short foreword by John Turner.

Pitfield was an artist, engraver, calligrapher, furniture builder and teacher, and I now know he was a fine composer of songs.

Review by Ronald Corp