English Song Series 19 - Ivor Gurney / Susan Bickley, Iain Burnside

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GURNEY Songs Susan Bickley (mez); Iain Burnside (pn) NAXOS 8.572151 (71:36 Text and Translation)

On the Downs. Ha’nacker Mill. The Bonnie Earl of Murray. The Cherry Trees. By a Bierside. 5 Elizabethan Songs. The Apple Orchard. All Night under the Moon. The Latmian Shepherd. I Will Go with My Father A-Ploughing. Last Hours. Cathleen ni Houlihan. A Cradle Song. The Fiddler of Dooney. Snow. The Singer. Nine of the Clock. Epitaph in Old Mode. The Ship. The Scribe. Fain Would I Change that Note. An Epitaph. When Death to Either Shall Come. Thou Didst Delight My Eyes. The Boat Is Chafing. Lights Out

Score another triumph for Naxos. The discovery of Ivor Gurney, a composer with whom I was completely unfamiliar, has turned into one of the joys of the summer of 2009 for me. I have played this disc over and over, and the pleasure only increases with each hearing. Gurney was born in 1890 and died tragically in an asylum for the mentally ill. He was first diagnosed with a mental disorder as early as 1913, but he was still permitted to join the British Army and fight in World War I, where he was wounded and gassed—–neither of which could have been good for his mental condition! After the war, he returned to London; he had studied with Charles Stanford before the war, and after it he studied with one of Stanford’s most important pupils, Ralph Vaughan Williams. Sadly his mental condition (thought to be bipolar disorder) continued to deteriorate and, in 1922, his family declared him insane and he spent the last 15 years of his life institutionalized, dying in 1937 of tuberculosis.

Gurney wrote poems and songs throughout his life, even while institutionalized, though most of the songs here come from before 1922. ( Lights Out was written in 1926, when he was an inmate of the City of London Mental Asylum, and it is a very deeply moving work of pure genius.)

It’s hard to describe the musical language of Gurney. One hears a composer who knew his Brahms, Schumann, and Strauss, but also perhaps his British and French predecessors and contemporaries. I even hear touches of Mahler in some of the songs. But none of that is meant to imply that this is a pastiche of other styles. It is not. Gurney had his own voice, a voice tinged with melancholy, with a bittersweet quality that goes directly to our own emotional core. And he had a real melodic gift—these songs stay in the memory.

Susan Bickley sings them with deep feeling, superb musicality, and a lovely light mezzo-soprano voice, and Iain Burnside accompanies sensitively and with an appropriately genuine presence of his own. Naxos’s sound is natural and well balanced. The notes that accompany the disc are helpful. However, the texts of just about half of the 30 songs on the disc are not given, because the texts are in copyright. Now, I want you to think about the stupidity of copyright laws that apparently permit someone to sing a poem to me, but do not permit the singer or her record company to provide me with a written version of the same words! Something is really wrong here. Bickley’s diction is quite good, but it is still not easy to understand all of the words in the songs for which we are not given the texts. One could find them in poetic anthologies, but really, one should not have to. Nonetheless, do not let this one shortcoming keep you from this wonderful disc. If you like Romantic and late-Romantic songs, this is definitely for you.

FANFARE: Henry Fogel

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: 8572151

  • UPC: 747313215171

  • Label: Naxos

  • Composer: Ivor Gurney

  • Performer: Iain Burnside, Susan Bickley