The Times – ‘Sounds’, 12th – 18th July 2008
The voice of experience meets the youth in this album contrasting the voices of countertenor Bowman and the boy chorister Swait.
Swait’s voice is clear, bright, and tuned with innate precision, ringing with carefree but studious childhood. Appealingly, he focuses on the mechanics of his singing, maintaining a childish ignorance of the full tragedy of Britten’s Little Sir William. Bowman is the uncle, worldly and artistic, duetting with restraint and phrasing with a characteristic elegance and expressivity that Swait duly and sensibly mimics. The pianist Andrew Plant accompanies with sensitivity.
International Record Review, July/ August 2008
With a single important exception, the songs recorded here represent a charming cross-section of (comparatively) familiar, (mostly) sentimental and (mostly) English song. From Boyce and Handel, via Dibdin and various folk-songs, to Warlock, Quilter, Vaughn Williams and others, this is a road much travelled – and there is plenty of room for one more traveller, especially if he possesses the sweetly angelic voice of the treble Andrew Swait. This disc is largely a showcase for his beautiful modulated tones, impeccable diction and sheer musicality – not to mention what seems like an adventurous taste in repertoire, though no doubt there was assistance from outside sources, including the two collaborators of the disc, James Bowman and Andrew Plant.
There is room for a spiritual, and for a Flanders and Swann number (though nothing can approach the original: here, Slow Train lacks humour and even a bit of charm), and for some settings from America (Charles Ives burying the family dog) and Australia (two nice Williamson songs). Much of what we hear is reflective and even languorous, and I began to wish for something a little more dramatic from time to time. I think the only living composers represented are John Jeffreys, 80 last year, about whom I know embarrassingly little, and Michael Berkeley, represented by an early (1976) Christmas carol which he later arranged for choir.
There are eight pages of comprehensive, maybe even over-detailed notes by the pianist, as well as a page by Swait himself, in which he mentions his admiration for Bowman. The latter’s participation in the proceedings is in fact relatively limited. The recording was made in a warmly resonant room at Cheltenham College, and is first-rate in quality. The younger singer’s website at www.andrewswait.co.uk/ reveals that he is already a veteran.
Now to the exception mentioned at the outset. Grouped together near the start of the disc are six original songs by Britten (also included are several Britten arrangements). Two of them, duets, are published: The Oxen (1967), an absolutely mature and characteristically responsive setting of a profound Hardy poem, and The Rainbow (1932), a lovely and simple setting of word by Walter de la Mare, another favourite Britten poet. Preceding these four songs which appear to be unpublished and un-recorded, an which date from Britten’s schooldays. They may even be unperformed until now, which makes these recordings world premières. The pianist here is Exhibitions Curator at The Red House in Aldeburgh, and presumably with blessing of the Britten Estate has disinterred these early pieces for a singer not much younger then Britten was when he wrote them.
The earliest would seem to be Witches’ Song (1929) to the words by Ben Jonson; then from the same year come The Owl (Tennyson) and Diaphenia (Henry Constable). Lastly from 1930 there is Chamber Music (V). This sets the same poem, Goldenhair by James Joyce, that Britten’s teacher Frank Bridge had used some years earlier. All four have an affecting naïveté, all are neat and trim, none is particularly memorable or perhaps even significant. Swait turns the first two nicely, while Bowman sings the Jonson and Joyce settings, and inevitably his long association with the composer lends an extra dimension to one’s listening. It is good to have them available, from (in case of Andrew Swait) a singer of such evident talent and promise.
MusicWeb.co.uk, September 2008
For my money the most interesting part of this adventurous collection of songs is the early Britten: there are four ‘unknown’ numbers dating from 1929 when the composer was barely a teenager. Yet there is a confidence and a subtlety here that belies his innocence. I have never heard these pieces before and am both grateful and delighted to have been introduced to them. The choice of text suggests that Britten was already knowledgeable about the deep riches of English Literature. Diaphenia, written by Constable and Chettle and The Owl by Tennyson are sung by the treble, whereas the ‘fantastic’ Witches Song the Masque of Dreams by Ben Johnson and James Joyce’s Chamber Music V is performed by James Bowman. These are great works that are fully worthy to be in Britten’s catalogue.
Three later songs further explore this investigation into the ‘unknown BB. The Rainbow is an attractive ‘duet’ to words by that poet of smutched innocence, Walter de la Mare. Perhaps one of the ‘saddest’ of poems in the English language is Thomas Hardy’s agnostic musing on the ‘kneeling oxen’ on Christmas Eve. Once again this is set as a duet for both performers which highlights the sense of loss of innocence. Yet this is a late Britten song, written in 1967. Finally there is a lovely setting of Little Sir William dating from 1940. Other Britten arrangements include Niles’s I wonder as I wander, Charles Dibdin’s Tom Bowling and the traditional Ca’ the Yowes.
I do not intend to describe all 25 tracks on this explorative CD. However, I want to mention what to me were a few highlights – although I recognise that every one of these miniatures will be someone’s especial favourites.
Perhaps the one work on this CD I enjoyed most is the heart-achingly beautiful rendition of Flanders’s and Swann’s The Slow Train. For anyone who has lamented the demise of the railway branch-line this is an ‘essential’ work of art. Of course, possibly one prefers the original version – but this recording gives a new slant on this work that is well worth engaging with.
The ‘colonies’ are not ignored in this CD. Charles Ives’s fine setting of the Negro spiritual ‘In the Mornin’ is surely a minor masterpiece that is a million miles away from preconceived images of that master’s complex music. Samuel Barber, Sure on this shining night is hauntingly beautiful and is possibly one of the great songs written by an American. Malcolm Williamson contributes a setting of the traditional Sweet and Low and Robert Louis Stevenson’s evocation of childhood imagination in My bed is a boat reveals a composer who is able to combine craftsmanship with wondrous invention.
But back to blighty: look out for Charles Wood’s version of that well worn text – Who is Silvia. How hard it must be to write a ‘new’ song that neither nods to, nor feels intimidated by Schubert!
Naturally the vocal texture of a boy-treble and counter-tenor is an acquired taste – John France September 2008 Songs of Innocence MusicWeb.co.uk and I am not sure that I have acquired it. However, if the listener has doubts about the wisdom or even the necessity of purchasing this CD let them consider 1) the programme has a number of pieces that are unavailable elsewhere –including some ‘unknown’ Britten; 2) there is no need to listen to this CD from end to end. To do so would be to gradually loose concentration on what are largely wellwrought songs, 3) the programme notes are extensive and extremely helpful. Which brings me to 4) -they are beautifully performed. For not a single moment are any parts of these songs forced or contrived. There is a beauty about both the voices that almost deifies description. And, of course, Andrew Plant makes a sensitive accompanist.
Finally, there is nothing sentimental about this CD: this is not some choir-robed starlet singing popular tear-jerkers – this is well written and well presented music at its best. The bottom line is that the title well sums up the entire project – these are ‘Songs of innocence’.