Peter Warlock: The Curlew

Warlock The Curlew; 12 songs for solo voice and instruments. Haffner Quartet, Mary Murdoch, Mary Ryan, James Griffett


There is much fine music here, some of it novel and all of it well performed; but the fare could have been more varied, and more authentic. The highest flights are attained by The Curlewa continuous setting for tenor, flute, english horn and strings of four quite separate poems by Yeats. Side 2 has 12 songs, four with string quartet accompaniment by Warlock and seven with instrumental accompaniments arranged by Fred Tomlinson, who is chair­man of the Warlock Society. Rather aptly, the corresponding information about the twelfth song, My Gostly Faderhas mysteriously vanished; at any rate there's nothing in the sleeve.

    The desolate tones of The Curlew will surely make their wistful appeal to sad and lonely listeners in cer­tain (or rather uncertain) moods. Warlock's bane, as well as his boon, is that his music so often derives its vitality as it were vampirically from the verses; and these are sometimes anaemic, even perniciously so - as witness the sickly pallor of The Water Lily.

    That text is by Robert Nichols, whose versifying - must have been a severe test of Warlock's friendly regard for him. Yeats is vastly more memorable and durable; but some of his Celtic Twilight now seems decidedly dim, even to illuminati. It is much to the composer's credit that he not only restores the balance but even tilts it. At times the music is suddenly vivid, as when it follows “the paths that the witches take” - with which Warlock sounds uncannily familiar. The singer too succeeds finely in making repeated lines no imposition, not even the exposed and almost unspeakable quasi parlando about the boughs that withered because the poet told them his dreams. Throughout all the songs James Griffett's voice is agreeable and his interpretation eloquent, sometimes movingly so. Perhaps it is indeed this involvement with words that sometimes makes his diction awry. The “ow” sounds are not always happy; and such lapses as “go(w)up” are the more noticeable by contrast with the usual meticulous enunciation.

    The playing is distinctly articulated yet most sensitively phrased, in solos as in ensemble. Mr Tomlinson says that he makes no apology for his arrangements; and musically no doubt they need none. But do we need them? Even authentic War­lock sounds to me more compelling on the keyboard than on strings. In Sleep for example the four-part writing sounds less predictable and hence more expressive on the piano. But the opportunity for comparison is interesting and rewarding; and it might with advantage have been extended to Warlock's other quartet writing, e.g. his own arrangement of his first setting of Whenas the ryeor his settings for two voices and string quartet of Corpus Christi or Sorrow's LullabyAt least we have here the 6/8 string quartet version of As ever I saw, retitled The Fairest Maywhich seems to me the pearl of this recording. It was “Warlock's last piece of vocal chamber music, completed in November 1930”, as Mr Tomlinson's useful sleeve note tells us.

    I think we might also have been told who dis­covered The Water Lily (and Jenny Gray)blushing unseen among the British Museum Mss. Again, it is good to have the poets dated and the sources identified; but surely there is good evidence for supposing that the Yeats texts of The Curlew were taken from the Collected Works of 1908 rather than the separate earlier publications here cited?