Divine Art’s Peter Warlock: Collected 78rpm Recordings is a two-disc collection of music by English composer Peter Warlock (Philip Heseltine), and not of Warlock himself, who seems not to have ever ventured into the recording studio. The date range of these recordings stretches from 1925 to 1951 and the two discs are divided among instrumental works and vocal ones. Warlock himself, of course, died in 1930, so if his collections were limited only to items recorded in his lifetime it would be a short disc indeed, though six of the vocal selections and John Barbirolli’s version of Serenade for Strings do date from within his short lifetime.
Warlock had a more extensive output than he is usually acknowledged for, but naturally during the 78 era only Warlock’s most popular compositions were going to be recorded, and this leads to repetition: there are two Capriol Suites, two Serenades for Strings, three Captain Stratton’s Fancies, and three Corpus Christis — the songs The Fox and Sleep are heard twice apiece. Moreover, certain pieces that did not gain popularity until long after Warlock’s death — for example the Christmas carol “Balulalow” — do not appear here at all, nor does Constant Lambert’s 1930 recording with John Armstrong of The Curlew owing to lack of space. What is left, however, is a veritable treasure trove of Warlock; all of the recordings made of Warlock’s music by his close friend baritone John Goss, selections sung by Kathleen Ferrier’s teacher Roy Henderson, composer Cecil Cope, and a young Peter Pears, in many cases with accompaniments provided by Gerald Moore. Among the Goss recordings are several selections of Warlock arrangements of Elizabethan songs as accompanied by Diana Poulton on a clattery-sounding lute, an instrument hardly anyone was playing in the 1920s. Although Lambert’s The Curlew had to be excluded, the one here is an extremely rare version from 1950 featuring René Soames and oboist Leon Goossens, originally issued on three 78 rpm sides and practically impossible to find. Prizewinning singer/songwriter Cecil Cope is heard singing Six Nursery Jingles as recorded for the Joint Broadcasting Service in 1941; there is even a 1927 recording of American provenance of Corpus Christi. That all of this material was assembled in one place was the result of a lifelong passion of John Bishop, the late founder of Thames Publishing and a founding member of the Peter Warlock Society.
Overall, the digital transfers are good; particularly so in the vocal items. Some of the instrumental music sounds a little swishy and cramped, and there should be a little more of the surface in the Poulton-accompanied selections just to allow a bit more lute to come through; moreover, the Purcell arrangements and “Corpus Christi” featuring Pears are a tad dim. However most devotees of Warlock will be pleased to receive these selections in any condition, and it seems like a great deal of effort was put into this package in keeping with its historic import. Furthermore, one thing this collection makes clear is how quickly Warlock’s music was absorbed by English performers and even ordinary English citizens, as evinced by a 1946 performance of “Rest Sweet Nymphs” sung by a provincial girls’ school choir. Despite Warlock’s elite social bearing, lack of formal musical training, reprehensible behavior, scandalous reputation, and death — not to mention the often harmonically wayward and strange nature of his music — there was something that clicked about his music in relation to the English imagination and spirit. And that’s what you hear on Divine Art’s Peter Warlock: Collected 78rpm Recordings; Warlock’s transition from being considered a difficult, modern composer to being a rightly woven thread in the fabric of English music.