Songs to Shakespeare
Here is another of those excellent programmes resourcefully devised by Graham Johnson, bringing down from the shelves all sorts of things we never knew were up there, and freshening our enjoyment of established favourites by providing them with a purposeful context. The songs are sorted into four periods: Georgian and Regency, Victorian and Edwardian, the later Georgians and the new Elizabethans. Although we are aware of a new period starting, the transitions are skilfully eased, so that (for instance) romanticism comes into view with John Clifton's If music be the food of love, which concludes the first group, and slips painlessly into the Brahmsian lyricism of Parry's sonnet-settings. Stanford's Twelfth Night song has something of the personal voice we recognize in ''the later Georgians'' starting with Vaughan Williams, and Howells's greenwood tree (a somewhat exotic growth, suggestive of the palm or mango) prepares for Tippett's quirky Ariel. Among the discoveries is the song of John Major. This was introduced as an encore at the Wigmore Hall recital given a few days before the recording sessions. It was then very topical and the same thought must have passed through the minds of many there: ''Who but Graham Johnson could have put out his hand and found this on the shelf?''. In the booklet he makes no explicit connections, contenting himself with the remark that ''Almost nothing is known of John Major, not even his dates, and even the catalogue of Gooch and Thatcher treats him as no more than a marginal figure''.
The performances all have the mark of intelligent preparation and high accomplishment. I have to say that I find certain features of Rolfe Johnson's style uncongenial (the separation of paired notes on the same syllable, for instance, and the habit of swelling the tone slightly on individual notes rather than producing an even flow); still, there is much to enjoy. A magical touch is brought to the accompaniments throughout, and the recording and presentation are first-rate.'