In Praise of Woman
Hyperion have come up trumps again with another delightful disc of out-of-the-way music. The brainchild of Graham Johnson, it is subtitled ''150 Years of English Women Composers'', with notes by Sophie Fuller, author of a book due out next year entitled The Pandora Guide to Women Composers. In the course of the programme the performers uncover a host of imaginative, impassioned and/or joyful songs that have lain for too long literally unsung, and revived others that were hugely popular until very recent times. Let me say at once that they couldn't have more perceptive or loving or enthusiastic interpreters than Johnson and Johnson, who excel even their own high standards of singing and playing.
Maud Valerie White, Liza Lehmann and Amy Woodforde-Finden have always been names to conjure with in the world of English song even if they may have been frowned on by superior persons. Here they are revealed as composers for whom no excuses of any kind need be made. White's My soul is an enchanted boat, which Fuller points out was highly praised in the first edition of Grove—''it is not too much to say that the song is one of the best in our language''—is here disclosed as a piece to rival any by Richard Strauss in its breadth of phrase and fine writing for the piano. It also evinces subtlety of feeling in setting Shelley, not the easiest of composers to 'musick'. The Devout Lover, once much performed, shows White to be fully the equal of Quilter, Elgar or Delius as a song composer and that's before we get to the marvellous
Similarly the tenor's singing of Woodforde-Finden's Pale hands I loved rivals Piccaver's famous Decca disc (4/32): it has the same beauty of tone and even more passion. This and the lesser-known Till I wake must be among the most erotic settings in the English language. Liza Lehmann's Lily of a day, previously unperformed and unpublished, a Ben Jonson setting, is another winning piece in which Rolfe Johnson sings with an unaccustomed touch of the heroic. He is just as convincing in the well-known ''Ah, moon of my delight'' from In a Persian Garden, even if he is just a shade strained at the climaxes. In quite another mood, ''Henry King'' from Four Cautionary Tales, shows Lehmann's gift for the wry and ironic and Rolfe Johnson sings it as intended in an exhausted mode. Even better than any of these songs is the elegiac A widow bird sate mourning, a real discovery.
There's so much else to enjoy—the harmonically elusive and quirky Possession of Ethel Smyth speaking of lesbian attraction to Emmeline Pankhurst, a song surely influenced by Continental models; the Brittenesque style of Lutyens's Auden setting, As I walked out one evening, that makes one wish she had written more often in this than in a 12-note vein; the false and amusing melodramatics of Rebecca Clarke's The Aspidistra; and—much earlier—the happy revival of Harrison's once-popular In the gloaming which, in such a masterly performance, still brings a tear to the eye. At the very end of a long recital that never outstays its welcome—quite the contrary—comes Phyllis Tate's simple, deeply moving Epitaph to Sir Walter Raleigh's timeless words on the ephemeral nature of life. This, like everything else here, is interpreted with a true understanding of the music in hand. Unreservedly recommended. The recording is faultless. '