Peter Warlock: Songbook (CR062)
Review by Corin Nelson-Smith, Expressive Audio
Philip Arnold Heseltine, better known as Peter Warlock, was one of the 20th century’s most exciting and promising young composers before his untimely death at age 36, and yet much of his work has gone somewhat under the musical radar in today’s popular performance repertoire. However, this makes it all the more exciting to listen to a CD showcasing 28 of Warlock’s songs, many of which are very hard to find recorded elsewhere, and is a great example of the important work Convivium Records does in promoting both new musicians and under-represented composers. The Peter Warlock Society should also not go without mention, as their funding and support have played a large role in bringing this recording to fruition.
One of the key ingredients for fully immersing oneself in an hour’s listening is to first understand the background of the composer, their musical influences and even their personal circumstances before and while writing the music. All this knowledge can unearth a huge amount of musical information that you might otherwise not notice or overlook, but that the composer will have included because it was meaningful to them in some way.
Peter Warlock is a fascinating composer for many reasons, but his formal musical education, or lack thereof, is one of the most important aspects to consider while listening to these songs. The son of a wealthy solicitor, Warlock enjoyed a well funded childhood with piano lessons from an early age, and an academic education at Eton College, followed by Oxford University and UCL. Although Warlock developed a passion for, and some say bordering on obsession with, the composer Fredrick Delius while at Eton, his two partially completed degrees at university were to read Classics and English, so until he received mentorship from Anglo-Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren in 1916, Warlock had received no musical training other than instrumental lessons. Needless to say, his passion for music soon overcame the pressure to live up to the family’s academic standards, and Warlock began a career as a notoriously harsh critic, editing the magazine ‘The Sackbut’, as well as beginning to write his own music. In fact, it was due to his notoriety as such a polarising critic that he was advised to adopt a pseudonym under which he could release his music without being subject to biased and even vengeful reviews.
This lack of a formal music education lead to some unusual early compositions, but under the guidance of Van Dieren in particular, Warlock began to apply more conventional harmonic, melodic, and textural rules to his works and created a style that was both unique and innovative, yet familiar and beautiful to listen to. As a musician with a keen interest in folk music myself, noticing Warlock’s Welsh heritage and folk influences come through in many of his songs is a personal treat!
This particular set of Warlock’s songs is performed by acclaimed soprano Luci Briginshaw, accompanied by pianist Eleanor Meynell, a duo who have been planning this recording for some time, after noticing that not only were Warlock’s songs under-represented in modern performance repertoire, but even more so in recordings of Soprano interpretations. Since graduating from King’s College London, Briginshaw has particularly captured the hearts of the operatic world, winning multiple awards for her performances that have been described as ‘vivacious’, ‘thrilling’ and ‘fabulous’. Indeed, her operatic accolades with roles such as the Queen of The Night with Glyndebourne’s production of Die Zauberflöte and Violetta with Opera Loki’s production of La Traviata makes the exceptional level of emotion and musical narrative that she brings to the various texts almost unsurprising. What is surprising, however, is that this CD marks Briginshaw’s debut recording, so I am thrilled that her mesmerising voice will soon be blessing HiFi systems around the UK, and indeed that I have had the privilege of being amongst the first to listen to the CD.
Prize winning pianist, singer, and vocal coach Eleanor Meynell also deserves a short biography before I put a stop to my ramblings and begin listening to the CD. Meynell began to stand out as an exceptional pianist whilst attending Chetham’s School of Music, where she achieved both ARCM and LGSM diplomas. Since leaving school, Meynell has performed around the UK and internationally to critical acclaim as both a soloist and ensemble member, with world renowned names such as John Elliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir. You can probably tell I am excited to listen to the combined musical talents of these two highly accomplished musicians, performing music that I, along with, I suspect, many people, have not listened to before.
Briginshaw notes that she struggled to choose just 28 of Warlock’s works to record out of the 120 odd songs he composed, however the ultimate selection here is fantastic. Arranged chronologically, and spanning the entirety of his composing career from 1915 to 1928, one can hear Warlock maturing both harmonically and stylistically as the CD goes on, making for an incredibly interesting as well as enchanting listen if you so desire. You are able to notice not just technical improvements to his compositions, but also changes in his life, location, and relationships that influence the music. I would highly recommend reading Briginshaw’s brilliantly written CD insert as you listen to each piece, as the detail and background knowledge this provides about both the text, the music, and Warlock himself is invaluable.
I am listening to the CD on the now discontinued but rather excellent Primare BD32, through a Primare I32 integrated amplifier and out through a pair of Opera Grand Mezza floor standers, all connected via Van den Hul cables. Primare are well known for producing a beautifully open, airy, and spacious sound, and this, plus the larger than life effect of the tall, room filling floor-standers means the quality of Convivium’s recording comes across absolutely beautifully. Every minute detail of the performance, and particularly the gorgeous acoustics of the St John the Evangelist Church in Upper Norward, are replicated in my listening room with astonishing authenticity.
All songs are performed with the utmost delicacy, sensitivity and with such captivating passion from both Briginshaw and Meynell that I can physically feel the significance of every word, every slight intonation and every note impressed upon me. The entrancing quality of Briginshaw’s voice, combined with Meynell’s mesmerising playing makes for a beautiful ensemble timbre that feels truly meaningful as well as utterly transfixing. It is not just the individual performances that make this such an enjoyable listen; the two musicians perform so expertly together and with such well practiced, almost telepathic communication that one could almost believe just one person was both playing the piano and singing. This is not music that is easy to keep in time either; there is no conductor, no rhythm section, and as each poem presents completely different emotions, both Briginshaw and Meynell have to be utterly in tune with each other’s interpretations. It is not hard to tell how much thought, rehearsal time, and passion has gone into this recording. The fact that the two musicians are still completely in time during every subtle rhythmic nuance, which contributes so much to the overall phrasing and meaning behind each melodic line, is deeply impressive.
As the nights draw in, the temperature drops, and we pile on layer after layer of warm clothing, track 16, Spring, felt both like a bitterly ironic piece to be listening to, and also like a very welcome window into what we can look forward to in a few months’ time. It is a testament to the musicianship of Briginshaw and Meynell, and indeed the musical writing of Warlock that despite the biblical downpours and howling gales outside my window, for an all too brief 1 minute 26 seconds, I was totally and unreservedly transported forward in time to the blue skies, warming sunlight and tweeting birds of Springtime. Ever since exploring the concept of word-painting in my school music education, I have been endlessly fascinated by the almost theatrical quality it can bring to vocal music, and this is a fantastic example. The use of sung bird calls as a mini cadenza to round off each verse, the growing dynamics and vibrato on ‘blooms’, and the chirruping acciaccaturas in the piano part all paint a wonderfully detailed picture in my mind.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, and much more appropriate for the current season is track 14, Autumn Twilight. Warlock envelopes the listener in a deeply evocative blanket of every emotion we associate with the falling of night, and indeed the coming of Winter. The through-composed, and ever moving melody of this piece creates such a sense of time marching on and a story developing that it is almost a shock when the piece ends and you are brought back to reality with just three minutes having passed. Constant arpeggio movement on the heavily-pedalled piano evokes the sense of falling, whether that be the golden brown leaves from the trees, the damp, all encompassing mist, or the setting of the sun. As Briginshaw notes, Warlock’s performance direction for the entire piece of ‘very quietly’ forces restraint on the singer and creates a deliciously mysterious, pensive and Autumnal atmosphere. This song is so engagingly performed by Briginshaw and Meynell that I almost forgot to breathe while listening; so enchanting the frequencies, so absolute the silences.
I shan’t go into detail about every single piece, for I fear I have rambled long enough, however I must commend and thank all involved with bringing such a welcome piece of art to my ears, including the Peter Warlock Society, the sound engineers, the producers, and above all Luci Briginshaw and Eleanor Meynell. I wish them every success with this CD and highly recommend everyone, regardless of whether they are avid vocal music enthusiasts or not, listen to the album. This will not just appeal to fans of Vaughan Williams or George Butterworth, although I do see them being the first to explore Warlock’s music further, but to anyone who simply appreciates musicians at the top of their game producing beautiful music.
Corin Nelson-Smith, Expressive Audio, November 2021