Various: Sappho, Shropshire and Super-Tramp

review sappho x1 cong

First of all what this is not: it’s mostly not folk music, despite the cover and it does not feature the works of Roger Hodgson and Rick Davies; the Super-Tramp of the title is hobo turned poet WH Davies.

This double CD is sponsored by The English Poetry and Song Society and contains music by eight society composers, all of whom has featured as prize winners in society competitions.

The works are all English art-song — vocal music composition, usually written for one voice with piano accompaniment — and it’s a serious work.

The songs with Sarah Leonard (soprano) are beautiful but dry, and verging on the operatic (though her rendition of Brian Daubney’s The Dream-City on CD2 is one of our favourites); Johnny Herford’s baritone brings a little more lightness.

There are too many songs to go through them all. Ivor Gurney’s Seven Sappho Songs opens, describing one of Sappho’s love affairs on Lesbos in the 6th century BC. It is an evocative piece, Leonard creating the air of a gentle evening breeze for the first song, Soft Was The Wind. The final song, Lonely Night sees the lovers parted; it’s perhaps not unnatural that Herford’s appearance in O See How Thick The Goldcup Flowers comes as a change, William Carnell’s song cycle A Country Lover being based on poems from Housman’s A Shropshire Lad.

Far more earthy stuff and it’s doubtful Housman with “Oh may I squire you round the meads / And pick you posies gay?” was using the last word in the same sense as Sappho’s “Softer than the hill-fog to the forest / Are the loving hands of my dear lover / When she sleeps beside me in the starlight”.

This is not to be facetious; one of the charms of the CD is the intellectual curiosity it creates, not only in the music but in the subjects it tackles, and the texts (provided in the sleeve notes). One of those CDs that will drive you to Google more than once. (Gurney’s biography is interesting, if tragic, in its own right).

Leonard and Herford are excellent, and despite our reservation about its technical dryness, it sparkles in its own intellectual way. The piano accompaniment comes from Nigel Foster.

Out now on Divine Art, DDA 21230.

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