Martin Shaw Songs: The Airmen

Our rating 
3.0 out of 5 star rating 3.0

COMPOSERS: Martin Shaw
LABELS: Delphian
ALBUM TITLE: Martin Shaw Songs: The Airmen
WORKS: Brookland Road; The World’s Delight; Wood Magic; The Little Waves of Breffny; The Airmen
PERFORMER: Sophie Bevan (soprano), Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)

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In middle England, in the mid-20th century, it was hard to miss the music of Martin Shaw (1875-1958). At school I sang his hymn tunes, at church his Anglican Folk Mass: simple, vigorous, memorable music, exceedingly fit for purpose. Of his 70-plus solo songs one heard barely a peep, and this present rather over-generous collection of 36, featuring some of the brightest British talent, offers much to delight and amaze.

Since 1980, the Grove Dictionary opinion has been that Shaw’s songs leave ‘an impression of good taste without strong character’. That surely needs upgrading after the haunting beauty of ‘The Melodies You Sing’, the pagan colouring in ‘Perilous Ways’, or the depth of sincerity in songs saluting the serving forces and waiting women of two world wars. This is music full of character,and some of that character is complex and contradictory.

Cleanly crafted, the songs are mostly easy to perform, though they need ringing passion and a quick tongue in the texts (often by Shakespeare, Kipling, or Christina Rossetti). Tenor Andrew Kennedy and baritone Roderick Williams are gorgeously eloquent; Iain Burnside’s piano satisfies, too. Only Sophie Bevan seems out of sorts, hooting and gabbling up on high, blurring words: in ‘When Daisies Pied’, I heard little beyond ‘cuckoo’. But you still have Shaw’s songs, and the thrill of discovery.

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Geoff Brown