Sir Hamilton Harty, composer of many songs of the Edwardian era, has the sort of name you would associate with the character from a Woodhouse novel.
He was however a serious musician of Irish extraction from County Down. In 1901 he left Dublin, where he was church organist, and headed to London. Though virtually unknown in the city, he soon got on the musical circuit, offering his services as a piano accompanist (a term he hated, preferring the term ‘collaborator’). He soon was performing with the great sopranos and baritones of the day, at the Bechstein Hall (now Wigmore Hall), and at the Aeolian Hall in New Bond Street.
He was to meet his wife, soprano, Agnes Nicholls, who later carved out a prestigious career singing Wagner and Elgar. Early on in their relationship he wrote songs for her, also for the famous Irish baritone, Harry Plunket Green and another soprano, Elsa Swinton, (see John Singer Sargent’s portrait below), who had the ability, according to Osbert Sitwell, of keeping ‘even a fashionable audience quiet’. Swinton and Harty are rumoured to have had a passionate affair.
Biography aside, what of soprano, Kathryn Rudge’s decision to record the Hamilton Harty songbook out on Somm Recordings?
I was surprised to the extent Harty wished to express his Irish roots (having been so keen to leave all behind and come to London).
Some works transport us to wind-swept Antrim. Sea Wrack for example, a ballad about fishermen who gather algae to burn and make kelp. The simple ballad, movingly sung by Rudge, climaxes beautifully in the third verse. It is a sad tune and a catchy one at that. Meanwhile My Lagan Love is exquisitely rendered by Rudge, who uses all the Irish ornamentation, long extended phrases and rhythmic freedom to stunning effect. Meanwhile Scythe Song is a beguiling evocation of work in the fields and a young woman’s awakening to summer’s delights. The glissando running back and forth on the keyboard was a nice touch, imitating the repetitive movement of the scythe.
The Stranger’s Grave is a composition which allows us to appreciate Rudge’s operatic credentials. It could be an aria from Bizet’s Carmen in parts and it’s good to hear her voice undulate down into a Carmen-like lament. The work is richly layered with sharp contrasting major and minor shifts. Intervals of pianistic fancy are expertly played by Christopher Glynn on the album. The libretto by Emily Lawless (1845-1913) also strong, phrases like ‘Little feet too young and soft to walk…’ tug at the heartstrings.
Two other works drew me in, At Easter, where Rudge shows her broad vocal range slowly rising through the lower register and hitting the high note on ‘rapture’ quite comfortably. Adieu, Sweet Amaryllis, this time written and composed by Harty and most probably in response to his break-up with Swinton. Rudge sang this swan song on the album with an abundance of true feeling.
Harty’s compositional gifts takes the traditional Irish song to another level and his choice of poetry makes the libretto a pleasure to read whilst listening. Rudge also has the sensitivity to draw the most from the song.
Songs by Hamilton Harty released on Somm Records on 19th June. https://bit.ly/3cL0Mu9