Full Review for "The Soprano Sings - English Songs"


This is an impressive album. From the quality of the singing, by way of the imaginative accompaniment, to the impressive ‘batting order’ of the songs, this CD is an excellent purchase. The album introduces even the hard-bitten enthusiast of English lieder to new delights. Add to all this, a fine introductory essay which not only discusses the songs, but also suggests a philosophical framework and historical context for a better understanding of them. Finally, the sound quality is impressive, allowing the singer, the pianist and the song to be seen in the best possible light.

One sad footnote to this CD: Lesley-Jane Rogers told me that Christopher Ross, her fine accompanist, succumbed to leukaemia in 2005. This is surely a great loss to the musical world.

The track-listing is interesting. There are 27 songs on this CD, giving a generous 70 minutes of music. For the listener it is invidious to play the CD from end to end: so much would be missed. But the reality is that this disc can be listened to as three separate recitals (Tracks 1 to 10; 11-19 and 20–27). And this is the way I suggest that it is approached.

Lesley-Jane Rogers notes in her essay that there are different streams of influence in English Song. This includes the use of folksong, the rediscovery of the music of Purcell and his contemporaries, and the influence of German lieder and French Mélodies. Over and above these purely musical references is the more intangible Englishness that is partly derived from the fields and hills and villages of this great country. Add to this the treasury of verse, poetry and song that the composers were able to draw upon – both contemporary and historical. All these things result in an important genre of music that is often sidelined or even ignored. It is the raison d’être of this CD to redress this balance.

It is not necessary to discuss every song in detail; however I want to point out some highlights. There are a fair few ‘old favourites’ on this CD, such as Howells’ beautiful ‘King David’, Frank Bridge’s ‘Love went a riding’ and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘The new ghost’. But it is the less well-known pieces and the downright rarities that add special value. The two songs that most impressed me were the great Housman setting of ‘The cherry hung with snow’ from Colin Ross and the beautiful ‘Crab-apple’ by Montague Philips. I had heard neither song before. I have not come across the composer Colin Ross, although I understand that he was one-time organist at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne.

The depth of the repertoire ranges over some six decades. Amongst the earlier pieces is Parry’s ‘Three aspects’ (1909). This is a powerful song that surely has allusions to the well-known ‘Jerusalem’. It surprised me that it has not remained in the repertoire. Elgar is represented with his well-known ‘Like to the damask rose’.

There are a fair few songs here that are totally new to me: for example Eric Thiman’s ‘The piper pipes a merry tune’. I guess that most people will associate Thiman with the organ loft and educational music, but he did write a number of secular, concert works. Hearing this song suggests that re-evaluation of Thiman’s music may well be overdue. I had not heard the Michael Head song ‘Sweet chance’, Arthur Bliss’s coquettish ‘The buckle’ and Anthony Hopkins’ ‘A melancholy song’. With Hopkins it is often forgotten that he is an accomplished composer; he is best known for his books of musical analysis and his popular radio programme Talking About Music. Hopkins’ ‘wryly humorous’ song is the shortest on this CD, yet reveals competence, wit and imagination.

Lesley-Jane Rogers has chosen a fair selection of better-known songs -including such numbers as John Ireland’s ‘My true love has my heart’ and his ‘I had Twelve Oxen’. Britten enthusiasts are not ignored: there is a fine performance of ‘Let the florid music praise’. Other composers include Moeran, Warlock, Quilter and Bax. Cecil Armstrong Gibbs is represented by three fine songs, Bridge by his well known ‘Love went a riding’ and his slightly lesser known ‘Speak to me, my love!’ And finally, I enjoyed Herbert Howells ‘On the merry first of May’. This song is light and vivacious: it could not be in greater contrast to his setting of ‘King David’.

This is a CD that all enthusiasts of English Song will want to have in his or her collection. Lesley-Jane Rogers’ voice is ideally suited to this kind of music. She is well able to balance depth of tone with an intimacy of detail. I noted above her essay and its philosophical approach to these songs. Basically the singer and accompanist have to realise that each song is a mini-opera complete with plot, scene-setting and character. If a song suggests innocence, then this must be the mark of the interpretation: if it is slyness, then this is the keynote. It may seem obvious, but so many singers seem to have one set approach to singing that is used in every song they sing! Lesley-Jane Rogers most definitely practises what she preaches. The theory is put into practice in this recital.