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Songs of Muriel Herbert - Gramophone


16 July 2009
Gramophone
Patrick O’Connor

Muriel Herbert (1897 - 1984) was a protégée of Roger Quilter, who arranged for the earliest publication of some of her songs in 1922. She was also encouraged by Sir John Barbirolli, who programmed some of her instrumental pieces. When she performed her settings James Joyce's "I hear an army charging" and "Lean out of the window" on a visit to Paris, Joyce declared "the music is much too good for the words". Herbert seems to have had perfect instinct for choosing poems that would suit her style; gentle, sometimes humorous, but also infused with what her daughter, the author Claire Tomalin, describes as "a passionate melancholy". The verse chosen ranges from some of Helen Waddell's translations of Medieval Latin Lyrics to works by Hardy, Housman, Masefield and Swinburne.

Among the merry songs there is a really charming setting of the anonymous verse "On a time", published in John Attye's First Book of Airs in 1622. James Gilchrist sings this, and Ben Jonson's "Have you seen but a white lily grow?", with just the right romantic, teasing quality. Ailish Tynan sings the Six Songs for Children, from 1938, to words by Ada Harrison. The same poet's "In the days of November", composed in 1943, is the latest composition that survives, a sad little song of regret.

The English art songs of the early 20th century are still too little known, and seldom explored by singers. Muriel Herbert's music deserves its place alongside the more famous names of the time.

Her work has been magnificently served by the artists on this disc. Both Ailish Tynan and James Gilchrist seem to have made a leap forward as interpreters of English song; their diction is beautifully clear, without any recourse to archness or over-emphasis that can so quickly spoil this sort of repertory. David Owen Norris plays all the songs with evident affection and devotion.


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