I first became aware of the music of John Jeffreys quite recently when I was invited to review the CD of his songs made a few years ago by Ian Partridge. That disc was swiftly followed by a much more recent collection of his music. Those two discs made me keen to audition this present James Gilchrist collection. The CD arrived just a few weeks ago and not long afterwards it was announced that John Jeffreys had died on 3 September 2010, just four days after the passing of his wife, Pauline. So, by a twist of fate, most of my listening work on this CD took place in the week or so after the composer’s death, though I hope that hasn’t influenced my judgement.
It’s particularly pleasing to find that, after Jeffreys’s songs had been championed on disc by Ian Partridge, one of the foremost British singers of his generation, James Gilchrist, a leading light among current British singers, has taken them up. Advocacy such as this is great for any composer, and still more so for one whose music has not yet attracted the recognition it deserves. Collectors will be delighted to learn that the Partridge disc contains twenty-four songs and this one has twenty-six yet only seven songs are duplicated.
I should just add a word of explanation about the track-listing at the head of this review. John Jeffreys himself produced this recording and selected the groups of songs. I infer from Peter Palmer’s very useful notes that the composer may also have given the various groups their titles so I’ve reproduced them in the list. However, listeners should be aware that these are not formal titles for groups of songs in the sense that any group has, as far as I know, been published under one of these collective titles.
In James Gilchrist these present songs have an excellent advocate. His tenor is essentially a light, sweet instrument though he can certainly summon up steel and power when required. Thus the voice is well suited to these songs. In his notes Peter Palmer cites Warlock and Ireland as exemplars for Jeffreys. I wouldn’t disagree, though I’d add Ivor Gurney to the list.
It will be noted that there are three songs in this collection that set words by Gurney. I’ve heard Severn Meadows before because it’s on the Partridge disc but the other two were new to me. Severn Meadows is Jeffreys’s earliest extant Gurney setting, dating from 1962. It’s typical of Jeffreys that he would not shy away from a text simply because another composer has set it – nor should he do so – but I have to say that I don’t think his setting, good though it is, matches Gurney’s own. Gurney’s infinitely bitter-sweet song lodges firmly and quickly in the memory, whereas this one doesn’t – or hasn’t done so far. One weakness in the setting is the piano prelude. It’s only ten bars long, apparently, but in this performance it spans 0:44. That’s quite a long time in a song that takes 2:18 in all and I rather fear that one is kept waiting too long for the voice to enter. Interestingly, Jeffreys chose the same key – B minor – as Gurney though it appears he didn’t know the Gurney song at the time he composed his own setting. I must report, however, that Gilchrist sings the song with great feeling and the music for the second stanza of the poem is very eloquent and melancholy.
Severn Meadows is preceded by Horror follows Horror . This is a dark, dramatic minor key setting and the piano part is jagged and dissonant. The song is marked “Taut and angry”. It’s a harsh song – rightly so, in view of the words – and it brings out a side in Jeffreys’s music that, on my limited acquaintance to date, is new. At the risk of challenging the composer’s judgement I think a better order for these three Gurney songs might have been to place this one second in the group, opening with From Omiecourt and ending with Severn Meadows .
The Shakespeare group is well chosen. Full Fathom Five is grave and impressive and there’s an intriguing harmonic shift at the words “sea change”. When that I was is largely light in character, capturing the spirit of the text, while O mistress mine is an engaging, wistful response to the words. It’s not as extrovert a setting of this text as some that I’ve heard – Roger Quilter’s springs to mind – but it’s none the worse for that.
The first group of seven songs did remind me of a point I’ve made about the other discs of Jeffreys’ music that I’ve come across. Though they’re good songs individually, all of them are of a similar hue in that they’re all in moderate tempo and impart a similar overall feeling to the listener. Happily, the other groups on the disc evidenced a very welcome variety of approach. But, as I say, these Songs of Love, as they’re termed here, are good. Awake thee my Bessy is a strophic song that’s blessed with a truly lovely – and memorable – melody. It has a folk-like quality and it’s quintessentially English in character. The song has a touching simplicity and Gilchrist’s performance is excellent. She is all so slight is described, aptly, in the notes as a “chaste love song”, which Gilchrist delivers beautifully. Passing By is another touching, essentially strophic song. I think it might have been beneficial had Jeffreys omitted a couple of stanzas of the poem but his setting is enjoyable nonetheless and the ear is caught especially by a lovely yearning melodic phrase with which all but one of the six verses concludes.
Among the songs I’ve not yet discussed The Far Country was written for James Gilchrist. It deserves to take its place on the roll-call of good Housman settings and the music suits Gilchrist’s voice to a tee. I liked Jeffreys’ approach to the Yeats text, The Salley Gardens . He produces a fine, easeful setting, which flows very well. The metre shifts between 3/4 and 4/4 and that adds to the interest.
The group of sacred texts contains some interesting material, not least the songs which open and close the group. The Falcon will be familiar to anyone who owns the Ian Partridge disc. It’s strongly atmospheric and spare textures in the piano part support the vocal line. Gilchrist sustains it well, offering very intense singing. What will be new to listeners is Corpus Christi . This, I presume, is a later song in which Jeffreys essentially reworks The Falcon – the words are the same – though the music is not identical, I think. Jeffreys adds a short piano prelude in Corpus Christi and the other substantial difference is that in this setting he repeats at the end the opening refrain “Lullay, lullay”. That, I think, makes for a better conclusion to the song. As in The Falcon , Gilchrist’s singing is intense and superbly controlled. Also notable in this group is I am the Gilly of Christ – also offered by Ian Partridge – a powerful song that Gilchrist handles very effectively. Drop, drop slow tears is an excellent working of familiar words. The music is rather spare in character and the song benefits from the restraint and simplicity of the setting.
Overall, this is a very good disc indeed. James Gilchrist’s singing gives consistent pleasure and he is well supported throughout by Anna Tilbrook. This is the best collection of songs by John Jeffreys that I’ve heard to date. That’s not in any way to decry the excellent Ian Partridge disc but I think the material in this present recital offers greater variety and so, arguably, presents a slightly more rounded picture of Jeffreys’ output of songs. These songs deserve the exposure that discs like this make possible. They are in the best traditions of the English song genre and collectors who like that repertoire will find this disc has many rewards.