The main work on this disc, My Lute and I, is a song cycle for tenor and guitar which was written for tenor Mark Padmore and guitarist Morgan Szymanski by Alec Roth, setting poems by the Tudor poet Thomas Wyatt (1503 – 1542). For the disc, Padmore and Syzmanski have added further songs by Roth for the same combination, setting words by Vikram Seth (Dark Night, Three Night Songs), John Donne (Autumnal) and Edward Thomas (Lights Out), a short guitar solo (Invocation) and a set of English folksong arrangements. The disc is released on the Signum label, a label which has issued discs of quite a number of Roth’s other works including his Songs in the Time of War which was written with Vikram Seth and had Padmore as the soloist.
Roth set nine poems by Thomas Wyatt, a poet and courtier whose poetry seems to have reflected his rather tortured love life (he was married to a woman he did not love, got involved in some way with Anne Boleyn and had a succession of mistresses before dying unexpectedly). The cycle was first performed by Padmore and Szymanski in July 2011 as part of the Summer Music Society of Dorset’s 2011 season.
Alec Roth, in the CD booklet notes, talks about how Wyatt’s poems ‘were clearly intended to be sung’, and in the third song How Roth uses a melody based on the English folk-song Searching for Lambs. Roth’s settings of all the songs combine a melodious facility with great care to hear the words. Roth places a lot of trust in his tenor soloist, and for much of the time the guitar accompaniment adds rhythmic and harmonic interest rather than covering the voice, and often leaves the voice alone entirely. This trust is repaid and Padmore has rarely sounded so clearly beautiful and expressive on disc. I suspect that he was quite closely recorded, but this only serves to highlight both his voice’s beauty and the colours he achieves with it. Szymanski’s role is, generally, rather more discreet and the guitar part is hardly showy.
Roth’s writing in each of the songs generally takes the form of a fairly free introduction followed by a more structured, more lyrically melodic verse. Many of his tunes and motifs are positive ear-worms and his lyrical melodic gift is clearly very great. All the songs have great charm, with Padmore and Szymanski bringing this out, Padmore also displays his not inconsiderable acting skills in the more narrative poems.
The prevailing mood is of wistful melancholy, an elegant turning of phrase and a lovely, seductively lyrical tone. Many people will be charmed and entranced by the cycle and it obviously would sit well in a programme of lute and guitar accompanied song. But I felt that sometimes Wyatt’s verse is more pointed, more pained than Roth allows. I might be rather prejudiced in this, in that I have also set Wyatt’s poems for tenor solo. But trying to approach things as a listener, rather than composer, I felt that the cycle could have done with an element of grit, some bitter among the sweet, a moment when the soloist is able to display real pain rather than his elegant company face.
Szymanski follows this with a short, elegant guitar solo Invocation, which is full of lovely melodic material and finely played by the guitarist.
Roth is perhaps most closely associated with the work of Vikram Seth, whose writings he has set in a number of works. Dark Night was his first setting of Seth’s work and the text comes from Seth’s verse novel, The Golden Gate. The version for voice and guitar was made for the performers on this disc, and first performed by them at Rochdale Music Society in November 2008.
The work opens with a simply rhythmic figure on the guitar and a bleak, plain voice part. The voice tends to circle round the same note, the vocal line does get more elaborate but the real drama is in the words. Roth brings a slightly exotic feel to the harmony with an interesting bending of odd notes.
The three poems which Roth set in Three Night Songs come from Vikram Seth’s collections The Humble Administrator’s Garden and All You Who Sleep Tonight. Roth’s songs were composed for Padmore and Szymanski and first performed by them in 2011 as part of the Salisbury International Arts Festival.
The Gift opens with a guitar part which is slightly spikier than usual, complemented by a simple quite plain melody. Roth’s setting is quite free and declamatory but with notable melodic motifs. Heart is very atmospheric, but quite spare, with a lovely sinuous vocal line. All You Who Sleep Tonight again has a rather memorable tune, but also considerable rhythmic fascination.
The setting of Donne’s Autumnal again combines a complex and sinuous melody with rhythmic elements. This insidiously entrancing song was was composed in 2010 as a present for a friend’s 70th birthday.
The five English folk-song arrangements were also written for Padmore and Syzmanski, there were premiered in 2008. Roth takes pains to ensure the clarity of the original melodic material and the words, though the guitar accompaniments are highly imaginative at times.
The final item on this disc is a setting of Edward Thomas’s Lights Out, it was written for Padmore and Szymanski and first performed by them when recording this disc.
The songs on the disc are all charming and many are entrancing, complemented by performances of great intelligence and beauty from Padmore and Szymanski. I have to come back to the fact that I would have liked a little more grit occasionally, a more raw edge and a less insistent desire to charm and please. But many people will find the disc a complete delight and wonder what I am complaining about.