The Complete CW Orr Songbook, Vol. 2

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COMPOSERS: CW Orr
LABELS: Stone Records
ALBUM TITLE: The Complete CW Orr Songbook, Vol. 2
WORKS: Five songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’; Plucking the Rushes; Four Songs; Hymn Before Sleep; While the Summer On Is Sleeping; The Lads in their Hundreds; The Isle of Portland; 1887; In Valleys Green and Still; Three Songs from ‘a shropshire Lad’
PERFORMER: Mark Stone (baritone), Simon Lepper (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: 5060192780192

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Unfamiliar English composers are notoriously prone to exaggerated claims made on their behalf by enthusiastic vested interests. For once, however, here is a situation where the quality of the music really does make its obscurity hard to understand. The conventions of English-song nostalgia have to be accepted, for much of the time at least.

With that proviso, the composer’s searching imagination, technical precision and sure self-knowledge all denote a striking talent. The music’s idiom has something of Delius’s glowing chromaticism, crossed with Fauré’s supple and understated flow. I go along with Mark Stone’s suggestion, in his booklet note, that Orr’s way with ‘Is my team ploughing’ – one of a dozen AE Housman settings here – is ‘perhaps closer to Housman’s intention’ (and, I’d submit, maybe even finer) than Butterworth’s and Vaughan Williams’s versions.

‘The Isle of Portland’, based on another Housman poem, is a small and beautifully written masterpiece. There are jewels of a different kind too – ‘Plucking the rushes’ (an Arthur Waley translation from the Chinese), with its flickering keyboard colours; the elliptical concentration of James Joyce’s ‘Bahnhofstrasse’. Stone and Lepper’s interpretations are superb and memorable from start to finish – a situation that in turn says much about the strength of the music itself.

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Malcolm Hayes