Gibbs: Songs

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Songs
PERFORMER: Geraldine McGreevy (soprano), Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Roger Vignoles (piano)
For those of us whose knowledge of Armstrong Gibbs’s copious song output has been more or less confined to Janet Baker’s early recording of ‘By a Bierside’, here is a very generous anthology of 36 songs (including that setting of Masefield’s minor masterpiece), composed between 1917 and 1951 by an impeccable craftsman who had the knack of easy identification with his poets, whether Walter de la Mare (a long-lasting and major influence in his life) or much lesser poetasters.


Gibbs’s songs are always effective; he is good on atmosphere and fitting a melodic line intimately to a verse. He hasn’t the penetration of the greatest word-setters: one wouldn’t put his ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ on a par with Butterworth’s, ‘The Oxen’ with VW’s, or ‘The fields are full’ with Gurney’s; and Gibbs’s take on the eldritch ‘Tom o’ Bedlam’s Song’ is altogether too bluff – the rollicking approach is better suited to Bernard Martin’s ditties in Four Songs for a Mad Sea Captain. But most of the de la Mare settings are delightful, and some (the exquisite tranced ‘Silver’, for instance, or ‘The Wanderer’) deserve a high place in the pantheon of English song. He could hardly have finer advocacy than he does here: two superb voices alive to Gibbs’s many moods, while Roger Vignoles’s accompaniments are a model of sensitivity and understanding. Calum MacDonald