I don’t think there’s much I can write about the performances here other than that I can’t imagine better ones. Both singer and pianist seem wholly attuned to the variety of moods Warlock conjures in his songs. Taken as a whole, this record is the finest Warlock song anthology I can conceive of. It is generous in proportion, offering 34 songs in total, which range from the tender to the ebullient.
I find Warlock the most intriguing twentieth-century English song composer, and hold him as high in my affections as Britten and Finzi in this kind of repertoire. His harmonic language is fascinatingly diverse, from the lush romanticism of ‘There is a lady sweet and kind’, recalling (but not going quite as far as) Grainger’s brand of schmaltz (Warlock was fond of Grainger’s music, though a cheeky poem he published that made reference to Grainger’s relationship with his mother would not have endeared him to the Australian), to the muscular chromaticism, which in the accompaniment seems to verge at times on atonality, of his angular setting of ‘Sigh no more, ladies’, and containing much between the two extremes. He has an uncanny knack for finding the unexpectedly piquant harmony, the minor chord where one might anticipate a major, and vice versa.
A measure of the memorableness of Warlock’s settings may be the frequency with which his tune will come into my head when I see a particular title. The first half of the last century was a golden age for English song, and inevitably several poems were set more than once by different composers, even more than once by the same composer (there are two settings on this disc of ‘There is a lady sweet and kind’, the second under the title ‘Passing fair’). A good handful of the song titles on this disc immediately call to mind Warlock’s settings, even when I know others. That some of them invoke the settings of other composers – Sleep (Gurney), or Cradle Song (Britten), for instance – is not to Warlock’s detriment.
Favourites? I love greatly the ones where Warlock’s debt to the Elizabethan songs he loved is most evident, ‘As ever I saw’ and ‘The lover’s maze’. His setting of ‘Pretty ring time’ (i.e. ‘It was a lover and his lass’) may not be quite as catchy as the ones by Morley and Finzi (though it runs them close), but I think it may be my favourite. And best of all, I think, ‘Robin Goodfellow’, as delicious a song as was ever written. Alongside Debussy’s ‘Danse de Puck’, it’s the perfect musical representation of the shrewd and knavish sprite, full of impudence and trickery, and Ainsley and Vignoles are its masters.