Songs by Collins, Butterworth, Warlock, Holst, Bridge

Scott Robert Shaw tenor


Australian-born Scott Robert Shaw is a former member of (among many others) the Holst Singers. His debut disc The English Tenor explored early C20th English song; his second continues that theme (plus one song by Australian Timothy Collins). Conceptus is a versatile international ensemble formed during the pandemic, with (like the soloist) a particular interest in Late Romantic British vocal music.

There are some American critics who have a beef with the ‘English sound’ – characterised as ‘white’, that is excessively pure and bleached: such critics should give this disc a wide berth. 

The first track (by Collins) is Sea Song, words by Katherine Mansfield. My initial impression was of the almost salon-like nature of the arrangement, and the pure beauty of Shaw’s voice – high, clear, at times almost a countertenor. The song was gentle, romantic and…slow, at over ten minutes. And while the words speak of sobs and shrieks, both music and performance are unvaryingly stately. I honestly do not feel it sustains its length, but there is a yearningly romantic video version on YouTube which you may feel supplies something otherwise missing.

First impressions of Butterworth’s Housman settings were positive; the same limpid voice, and a tasteful chamber arrangement. But the emphasis throughout is on purity of tone at the expense of colour, pacing or dramatic interpretation. Each song emerged the same – refined, elegant, and seriously under-characterised.  To double-check I tried a classic recording (John Shirley Quirk) and yes, these songs can be robust, vigorous and dramatic – yet still achingly poignant; not here, alas. 

Perhaps Warlock’s The Curlew would fare better – after all, the recording by Ian Partridge featured perhaps the ultimate ‘English Tenor’. But eliminating the wind instruments (especially the cor anglais) strikes at the heart of the piece, and Collins’ pale arrangement does nothing to remedy the loss; while once again the singer contents himself with beauty of tone (albeit with noticeable vibrato) at the expense of drama, urgency or inflection.

Holst’s Rig Veda songs are rare enough to be most welcome, but… you get the idea. Under Imogen Holst Dawn is all hushed expectancy and rushing excitement – here it is a weather forecast. Stormclouds (‘Flashing sword blades/Tramping of horses’) has all the martial clamour of an office memo.  And the same, alas, goes for too many of the remaining tracks: all is impeccably tasteful, immaculate – and bland.

Lovers of The Voice Beautiful may well find enough to enjoy here; those who require rather more characterisation should try before buying. The soloist’s fine website offers many opportunities. Recording and the extensive booklet are excellent.

Review by Kevin Mandry