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100 Years of British Song, Vol. 1

James Gilchrist (tenor), Nathan Williamson (piano) (SOMM)

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

100 Years of British Song
Songs by Holst, R Clarke, Gurney and Bridge
James Gilchrist (tenor), Nathan Williamson (piano)
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0621   63:37 mins

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This wonderful selection of early-20th-century British songs, many concerning dreams and nightmares of the subconscious, opens with two Holst premieres. A Vigil of Pentecost begins with the sweet seventh chords later used in ‘Venus’, but increases in emotional intensity as it describes the gathering heavenly host. The Ballad of Hunting Knowe is typical Holst in its acrid scherzando style. James Gilchrist, a fine lyric tenor with admirable sensitivity to text, gives committed performances effectively accompanied by Nathan Williamson.

The five songs selected from Holst’s Humbert Wolfe settings are mostly on the light and whimsical side, the chilling ‘Betelgeuse’ alone representing that collection’s darker reflections on mortality. A pity then that, despite Gilchrist’s sensitive accounts, Williamson’s playing seems over-literal, most especially in ‘The Dream City’ where he is outclassed by Britten’s poetic evocation with Peter Pears in their pioneering complete recording (released on Decca).

Williamson appears more at home with Rebecca Clarke – ‘The Seal Man’ is particularly beguiling, though Gilchrist gives the seducer’s blandishments a sinister edge – and Ivor Gurney, Williamson very effectively handling the abrupt petering out of ‘Lights Out’. Their slow tempo for Bridge’s 1925 Four Songs accentuates their Scriabinesque qualities. Gilchrist’s tone is rather threadbare at the start of ‘Day after Day’, which might have benefited from another take. And I miss the human warmth in these songs as revealed by Sarah Leonard and Malcolm Martineau (on Cala), who also give a thrilling account of several of Holst’s Humbert Wolfe settings. Altogether, though, a very attractive recital.

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Daniel Jaffé