Rather like waiting for a bus, no sooner had a disc containing some lovely songs by John Jeffreys, persuasively sung by Ian Partridge, come my way than a second disc of his music landed on my doormat for review. The Partridge disc was highly enjoyable but in some ways this latest one scores higher because it presents music in more than one genre by this interesting composer.
I listened first to the music for orchestra. The Serenade for Strings is the oldest recording included here. It appeared on a Meridian disc over ten years ago (review). In passing I note that the same disc included Jeffreys’ Violin Concerto and it would be good to see that piece restored to circulation. The Serenade is short but very attractive and as annotator Colin Scott-Sutherland comments, “there is no mistaking the essential Englishry” of the music. It’s a lovely little piece and one that’s worthy of the wider circulation that I hope this CD release will bring to it. It sounds to be very well written for strings and the performance under Kenneth Page is an affectionate one.
Page died some forty years after the Serenade was written and in an appropriate piece of programme planning, later on in the disc we hear Elegy for a Conductor , which Jeffreys wrote in tribute in 1999. The piece may well be receiving its first recording here. It’s scored for strings with a sparingly-used horn. In addition there are telling solo interjections by flute, cor anglais and trumpet at various times. Colin Scott-Sutherland describes it as a “restrained threnody”. It put me in mind of Vaughan Williams, and not just because the trumpet solos recall his ‘ Pastoral’ Symphony . I think it’s a fine piece and though it’s restrained in tone it’s also heartfelt.
Bickleigh Idyll and Elegy for John Fry both appeared on the aforementioned Meridian disc, also in performances conducted by Kenneth Page. Here they reappear in new, sympathetic performances under Paul Bateman. Both are well worth hearing. The Idyll has an air of contented well-being about it, while the Elegy impresses through its calmly stated eloquence and, once again, some idiomatic writing for strings.
The two solo songs, Sweeny the Mad and A Lyke Wake Dirge have been issued previously by Somm Records some ten years ago (review). They are both good, dramatic songs and I’m glad that they’ve been included here. Mad Sweeney has no connection with the infamous Demon Barber of Fleet Street, by the way. This is a translation of a medieval Irish poem about a man condemned to wander the Irish mountains alone. It’s a dark, dramatic piece and Jonathan Veira sings it boldly. Jeffreys’ setting of the better-known text, A Lyke Wake Dirge , is a stark and powerful one. Veira is very impressive here; his voice is sonorous and clear. The music for every one of the nine stanzas is different, though thematically closely linked, and the cumulative power of the piece is impressive.
Even more remarkable though is the setting of Ivor Gurney’s Poem for End , which is scored for baritone and strings with an important flute obbligato. Gurney’s poem, which is probably a late one, is not easy to grasp at first sight. It’s autobiographical, linking two great places of influence in his life. There are references to his native Gloucestershire – to Crickley [Hill], on the way from Gloucester to Cirencester, and to the Severn – and to France, where Gurney fought in the trenches. France is represented not just by a reference to Artois but, more harrowingly, by mention of “Crucifix Corner”, the war cemetery at Villers-Brettoneux, Somme. The music to which Jeffreys sets these verses is intense and in tune with Gurney’s deeply-felt memories. Veira sings it powerfully and with great commitment – though I do wish he’d not roll the letter R so obviously at times. Much of the music is dark hued but towards the end (at 8:50) after a rather desolate flute solo, the mood softens somewhat for the resigned, admonitory last stanza of the poem.
Only, who thought of England as two thousand years
Must keep of today’s life, the proper anger and fears
England that was paid for by building and ploughing and tears
For these lines Jeffreys writes a lovely, lyrical line for the singer and the piece achieves a gentle, consoling end. It seems that this fine setting has remained unperformed since it was composed in the 1960s. I hope this recording will encourage other singers to take it up.
To complete the programme conductor Paul Bateman turns to the piano to play Toby’s Dreams and Elegy . This is a little set of eight short pieces which, we are told, evoke “the slumbering contentment of dog Toby”, who was killed by a car while shepherding handicapped children across a road. These miniatures take the form of “diversions rather than variations” on a very short thematic figure. I thought the piece started off pleasantly enough but as one movement followed another a rather disappointing sameness was all too evident. All the pieces are in moderate tempo and gentle and reflective in nature. All well and good to illustrate canine dreams, I suppose. But, I wondered, didn’t this dog ever dream of chasing rabbits? I doubt I’ll return to this part of the programme but the remainder of the disc is a different matter.
This new disc continues and expands the favourable impression made on me by Ian Partridge’s recital. John Jeffreys is a sincere composer with something to say – and that something is worth hearing. I’m very glad to welcome these further examples of his output to the catalogue and this disc offers an excellent introduction to his music for those unacquainted with it.
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