Bantock: Songs from the Chinese Poets; Ghazals of Hafiz; Jester Songs

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COMPOSERS: Bantock
LABELS: Dutton Epoch
WORKS: Songs from the Chinese Poets; Ghazals of Hafiz; Jester Songs
PERFORMER: Jean Rigby (mezzo-soprano), Peter Savidge (baritone), David Owen Norris (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDLX 7121
There couldn’t be more contrast between the first two volumes of the Naxos English Song Series, originally issued on Collins. Walton was only an occasional songwriter, but his quirky originality comes through in the two cycles Anon in Love and A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table, though Edith Sitwell’s poems work better spoken in Façade than as song. Somervell’s style dates from an earlier era, and is a mixture of Victorian sentimentality with echoes of Hymns Ancient and Modern, and the odd whiff of Brahms – especially prominent in the short cycle James Lee’s Wife, with its accompanying piano quintet. On both discs the indefatigable Graham Johnson leads involved performances.

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Like Somervell, Bantock was born in the 1860s, but he was much more affected by contemporary harmonic trends, and less four-square in his word-setting: words seemed to inspire him to real leaps of imagination, and the tendency to sprawl – so frequent in his orchestral works – is kept in check by the framework of the poems. There’s his usual preoccupation with the exotic, and Celtic, Chinese, Persian and Egyptian poems (real or fake), all appear here. Most impressive are the settings of Hafiz, where he breaks completely free from the stanzaic structure of the poetry to create operatic scenes in miniature; and the beautifully simple ‘Song to the Seals’. Both singers are at their best in the more relaxed songs – strenuous passages can show a little coarseness of tone, while Norris provides the most sensitive partnership in Bantock’s sometimes orchestrally rich piano parts. Martin Cotton