Alice Coote and Graham Johnson: "The Power of Love"
English songs. Texts. Hyperion CDA67888
Alice Coote and Graham Johnson turn their probing musical intellects and love of poetry to an exploration of fifty years of British song repertoire in The Power of Love, presenting sentimental Victorian pieces, well-known settings (Vaughan Williams's "Silent Noon") and some unknown masterpieces, all composed between about 1880 and 1930.
Johnson makes it clear in program notes that the track order was meticulously planned by the artists, so there's no blaming record producers for the weak start, "Love's old sweet song" — more recognizable from its refrain, "Just a song at twilight"— and three settings by Maude Valérie White. Any one of these would make a lovely encore (especially the noble, elegantly lyrical "The Devout Lover"), but the succession of mawkish songs, especially in Coote's swoopy delivery, is too much. Lacking the natural warmth of a Kathleen Ferrier, the mezzo-soprano's handsome voice sounds cold and astringent in these sweetly simple pieces, and the exaggeratedly spat-out final consonants land comically.
Coote and Johnson clearly believe in each work, and there is a logic in the disc's unfolding, but they can smother a song in thick tone, heavy-handed phrasing and overdone climaxes. Peter Warlock's "Take, o take those lips away" and "The night" are finely detailed and beautifully delivered, but his simple, silly "Queen Anne" ("I am Queen Anne, of whom 'tis said, / I'm chiefly fam'd for being dead") is hammered mercilessly. Coote and Johnson pull off "Hypochondriacus," a brilliantly funny song by Cecil Armstrong Gibbs on a text by Charles Lamb, but follow it with an arch, campy rendition of Liza Lehmann's trifle "Pa's bank." (By the way, Johnson's thickly detailed and rambling program notes hail a revival of the music of Gibbs but omit any biographical details.) Gibbs's "Song of Shadows," on a poem by Walter de la Mare beginning "Sweep thy faint strings, Musician," is a real find.
The performance improves with the quality of the songs, and when the artists opt for delicacy and restraint (the intense, static "Silent Noon," for example), the results are captivating. Ivor Gurney's "Lights Out," a perfect blend of words and music, and two songs by Gustav Holst, "Journey's End" and the severe and remarkable "Betelgeuse," bring the disc to a strong finish.
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