WHAT IF A DAY OR A MONTH OR A YEAR
Move Records MD 3151
This CD was recorded in Ormond Chapel at the University of Melbourne in mid-July 1979. Scheduled for release as an LP, the pressing did not proceed but was delayed until 1995 when Move issued it as a CD. Here it is again, remixed and edited by the company’s recording elder statesman, Martin Wright. English and fellow artists Jonathan Rubin and Sharyn Wicks offer 26 tracks – 18 vocal, 6 for lute solo, 2 instrumental duos. Some of the pieces are familiar to anyone with a smattering of interest in English composition at the time of Elizabeth I and her successor: Dowland’s In darkness let me dwell, Sorrow, stay and Can she excuse my wrongs; Campion’s Shall I come, sweet love, to thee and It fell on a summer’s day; Robert Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse.
As master of the genre, Dowland’s work is well represented with six ayres and The Frog Galiard arranged for the two instruments. Another major contributor is Alfonso Ferrabosco the younger, who scores five vocal contributions and one pavan. Thomas Campion, Dowland’s rival in the solo song stakes, is heard in four ayres, Robert Jones in three. The remainder is all instrumental: Anthony Holborne’s The night watch (the other work for lute and gamba), the anonymous Robin and Lord Zouch, his march for solo lute, and three pieces by Francis Cutting – Gig, Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan, and A toy. Most of the tracks are brief in length. The longest song is Dowland’s 4’22” In darkness let me dwell; the briefest, Ferrabosco’s Fain I would, but O I dare not at a minute; the most substantial instrumental offering is Cutting’s Mrs. Anne Markham’s Pavan – the longest track on the disc at 6’22” – and the fastest is Cutting’s A toy at 0″42″. The whole thing comes out at about 63 minutes in length.
So much for the content. The two instrumentalists I haven’t come across but, as I understand, they both went to Europe (Switzerland?) to further their careers, getting married along the way. Distinguished tenor Gerald English graced these shores for some years, most notably as Director of Opera Studies at the Victorian College o\f the Arts in the 1980s, as well as appearing in all styles of work. I think he was part of the Deller Consort that toured here in the early 1960s – probably in 1964, appearing in Melbourne as an offshoot of a larger engagement at the Adelaide Festival of that year. The ensemble sang in Wilson Hall and I was part of a student contingent that had seats on the stage. The timing is right for English to have been a member but, at a distance of 55-plus years, I can’t be certain.
And as for his appearances in Melbourne, I was present at very few: possibly an early or Baroque opera; The Diary of One who Vanished at the 1992 Melbourne International Festival – days when the festival was worth attending for its music content; a one-off appearance st the Assembly Hall in Collins St for the Chamber Made organization, or is that a completely stuffed-up instance of failing memory? At all events, I saw him in audiences more often than I heard him: a great pity and I am apparently one of the few among my acquaintance who was not exposed to his high tenor on numerous occasions.
As nearly everyone has said already, English’s voice was a highly individual one; in my mind, it couldn’t be mistaken for any other for its note-centredness, impressive rapidity of negotiation, flawless diction, and unabashedly ‘forward’ projection. As you can hear in this British music, nothing is lost or thrown away as incidental; dealing with works of this transparency, the tenor knew the value of every scrap of music. And the most admirable element – one that distinguishes English from his peers – is the lack of ponderousness, self-importance, or ego.
Of the six Dowland songs, pride of place goes to In darkness let me dwell, the tenor splendidly counterweighted by lute and gamba as he picks his way through the semper dolens melody without going in for over-emphasis, even at hellish jarring sounds; still, he does get a tad agitated in O let me living die and the pointedness of the line Till death do come stands as a lesson in subtle deliberation, albeit in miniature. Were every thought an eye is rarely sung, possibly for its four-square shape although the internal syncopations and delays/emphases keep you slightly on the qui vive; all is fine except those emphatic three notes at the end of some stanzas. English takes some pleasure in delicately emphasizing the syncopations during Can she excuse my wrongs, but you would wait a long while before you came across a singer who can despatch the final quatrain of both stanzas with such equanimity, making the awkward disjunction between words and music dissipate.
Sorrow, stay is given without gamba and the lucidity of texture is remarkable. In this brilliantly conceived song, where the composer’s musical responses are potentially predictable yet seem inevitable, judged to a gloom-laden nicety, the interpretation puts forward motion at its centre; no languishing, no lingering is allowed to interrupt the work’s movement to a quiet despair. Not quite the other side of the lover’s coin but a more optimistic setting of the same themes of death and love, Me, me and none but me – the second Dowland song without gamba – comes across as an amiably asymmetric construct with an easy fluency that should have appealed to Sting during his brief flirtation with Dowland’s music; alas, no: more taxing masterpieces attracted the British pop star’s attention, to nobody’s benefit. The final piece by this composer, Lady, if you so spite me, is more ornate than the other Dowland pieces: a fanciful flight to toy with the sexual specificity of the text and a fine example of English’s breath control in the last plangent line.
One of Campion’s most well-known ayres gives this CD its title, a setting for voice and lute alone. This is an ideal vehicle for English as the poem is articulated with remarkable clarity, lacking the pliability of metre common in this writer’s great contemporary. What impresses most is the rhythmic heft that both performers give to a simple construct without making any obvious effort. Shall I come, sweet love, to thee (another voice/lute performance) is missing its middle stanza but the reading makes you believe that the straightforward passage of the first four lines is continued in the following two lines of each sextet – and what a splendid, fitting ritardando at While these cold nights freeze me dead.
English and Rubin reach one of the highpoints of this disc at Campion’s I care not for these ladies which is given with a gentle swagger, particularly in the final couplet of each stanza where the singer avoids the predictable with a foreshortening of specific syllables to unsettle expectations of the four-square. Its flavour is bucolic and slightly racy, but the delivery is ideally polished. The most challenging of this set of four selections arrives with It fell on a summer’s day where the metre is displaced in the central lines, and then Campion adds on extra length in the final repeated verses. Not that you’d know it; the lute and gamba work is as smooth and unflustered as English’s poised delivery which is, again, of some more-than-suggestive lines couched in exquisite lyricism.
Ferrabosco, younger or elder, are – for me – names in a catalogue of Tudor/Jacobean composers, but I would need less fingers than those available on one hand to recall the times when I heard music by either father or son. So this CD does a service in bringing into context a small sample of the later family member’s work. The influence of Dowland is evident; not just in subject matter, which is common to all – love and death – but the development of elongated lines in the best of these pieces strikes me as similar if not as idiosyncratic as in the senior writer’s songs.
Fain I would, but O I dare not is a fine example of varying musical line-length to cope with a sestet that is unexceptional in its scansion. As expected, English smooths out the irregularities so that the piece – one minute long, even with a repeated final couplet – has a fluency of motion in text and music where nothing is wasted even if the inferential level complicates your assimilation or reception of the material. With Donne’s The Expiration (So, so leave off this last lamenting kiss), Ferrabosco strikes a fine balance between celebration and resignation: the lovers have to part but the leave-taking is conceit-rich, if not studied. English and his colleagues ignore the temptation to droop but carve the work into a slow dance of inveigling grace.
In the same vogue, Shall I seek to ease my grief is concerned with a similar sense of loss, although the feeling is clearly one-sided. There is little relief here, not even the fetching image of Eros shooting a Parthian dart at the wailing lover. But English brings an unsentimental pathos to the final lines where the singer/poet is looking forward to the grave – or are we to go back to the Eng. Lit 1 re-interpretation where ‘dying’ means something else entirely? Another rueful lament at falling out of love comes in Unconstant love, which operates in a higher tessitura than nearly everything else on the disc and where English’s voice suffers from some raspiness – not on the top note; just one or two below it, and not all the time. Like hermit poor, with its dour repeated-note first lines, is yet another mini-ode to disappointed love. It doesn’t follow the monochromatic path set at its opening but walks its despairing way with occasional flights of vocal self-indulgence. This is a polished performance which – as in so many of these songs – displays the composer’s innate fastidiousness; operating within a small palette of colours, yet presenting a unique emotional tableau in each.
The three songs by Robert Jones are apparently simple but ask for a wide-ranging technical equipment from both singer and lutenist – yes, the gamba is present but not as challenged. In Sweet, if you like and love me still, the opening quatrain is simple enough, but the following lines in each stanza are incident-packed with unexpected pauses and sustained notes, along with a few pronunciation oddities – well, they seem so to this untutored ear. In amiable words and music, the song warns the beloved that the singer/poet/composer is not prepared to tolerate rivals. But the mooted displeasure comes out of a landscape that is mild and insouciant: it’s a take-it-or-leave-it world here. A more regretful tone comes in Shall I look to ease my grief?, a companion piece to the Ferrabosco song Shall I seek to ease my grief: both composers set the same anonymous text but English has chosen different verses from the original to use as his second stanza. The Jones song moves in a triple metre for four verses, then jumps into a duple rhythm for the final line. The text is doom-laden – What remains but only dying? – but the setting of these words is frisky. Not that the performers treat it off-handedly but the impression is that this lover is singing for effect.
The last song on the CD is Jones’ Go to bed, sweet Muse where, possibly for reasons of space, the third stanza is omitted: a pity, as it finishes off the poem with a more overt direction to the listener (the singer, or poet, or composer, or you) to stop any self-torture. The message is a nice conclusion to all that has come before: don’t get upset at disappointment because the nature of love is unpredictable. Jones’ setting is simple: most of the melody is step-wise and just asks for beauty of timbre – which you get throughout this disc in spades.
The eight instrumental pieces range from less than a minute to the CD’s two longest tracks. Two solo lute pieces by Francis Cutting – A toy and Gig – are in simple AABB form and are over before you’ve settled in to them; I’ve heard both as guitar solos for intermediate students but Rubin plays them with an attractive piquancy. The same composer’s substantial Mrs Anne Markham’s Pavan employs a very refined language, the dance’s stately progress disrupted by several ornate flights of semiquavers, although the player omits one of these about 5 or six ‘bars’ from the end. Added to which, a few notes – three, at least – do not ‘carry’ well in these small fioriture chains.
Another slight product is Anthony Holborne’s The Night Watch, one of the lute and gamba duets. It’s a simple march in AABBCC format with a sprightly opening gambit, assuredly more suggestive of the city waits in a British town than of Rembrandt’s vain-glorious military officers. The other duet is The Frog Galiard by Dowland with the bass line given a semi-pizzicato treatment. This famous piece that brings up memories of the composer’s Now, o now, I needs must part song, is a test of the lutenist’s dexterity; Rubin manages most of the divisions neatly enough, only a handful of notes not registering.
A Ferrabosco pavan is the second-longest piece on offer and one of the finest things on this collection. Rubin’s colour shadings, his linear clarity and adoption of an unruffled pace all contribute to a fine account of a work that is not long on flashiness but loaded with powerful sentiment. The two anonymous pieces are Lord Zouch, his march which Rubin performs with a keen eye for rhythm; not as rapid in his attack as some interpreters but better able to handle the decorated repeats with near-faultless clarity. The other is Robin – which I believe is also/better known as Robin is to the greenwood gone. Another formally simple piece, the approach is as restrained as other interpreters, but Rubin again distinguishes himself by keeping the work’s fluency as paramount, not indulging in an overt exhibition of skill in handling its difficulties.
I suppose the intention of this re-release was to summon up the memory of a fine singer who gave a good deal to this country through his teaching and the exercise of his skills. We have few enough records of English’s years in Australia; this disc is a happy demonstration of his craft in a field where he shone – not eclipsing his peers, but standing in their front rank.