Ben Johnson performs a recital of English art songs accompanied by James Baillieu

'With James Baillieu’s strong if unobtrusive support, he sings with expressive sincerity and restrained elegance'

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Arthur Sullivan,Charles Villiers Stanford,Edward Elgar,Edward German,Eric Coates,etc,Liza Lehmann,Michael Head,Murial Herbert,Ralph Vaughan Williams,Samuel Liddle,Thomas Dunhill,Wilfred Ernest Sanderson
LABELS: Opus Arte OA
ALBUM TITLE: I Heard You Singing
WORKS: Songs by German, Coates, Elgar, Sullivan, Vaughan Williams, Head, Dunhill, Herbert, Lehmann, Liddle, Sanderson, Stanford, Sullivan, etc
PERFORMER: Ben Johnson (tenor), James Baillieu (piano)


‘English song’ is a broad church, but Ben Johnson, 2013’s Cardiff Audience Prize winner, draws this entire recital from what were once called parlour ballads. Vastly popular from concert hall to suburban living-room throughout the Victorian and Edwardian years, they were composed by both minor and major figures: Elgar, Stanford, Sullivan and Vaughan Williams feature here, and more recently Eric Coates, alongside the likes of Thomas Dunhill and Samuel Liddle. It’s striking, and no doubt indicative, how many women composers found an acceptable outlet in ballads, from Liza Lehmann to Muriel Herbert. Lehmann’s Henry King, from Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, is a particular delight, while Amy Woodforde-Finden’s yearning Kashmiri Song (‘Pale Hands I Loved Beside the Shalimar’) practically embodies Edwardian Orientalism.

Johnson’s full, lustrous tone and floating higher notes, decidedly unlike today’s typical ‘English’ tenor, suit this repertoire well. With James Baillieu’s strong if unobtrusive support, he sings with expressive sincerity and restrained elegance, avoiding camp even where cheesy sentimentality lurks, in Sullivan’s Lost Chord for example. Occasionally the syllable ‘…ing’ becomes the dreaded nasal ‘..eeeeenng’ much parodied by Harry Secombe, but it’s a hazard of the style. 


Michael Scott Rohan