As soon as I read about ‘Heart and Hereafter’, Elizabeth Llewellyn’s debut recital album on Orchid Classics, I was excited and intrigued to hear it – for three main reasons.
First, I had seen and heard her give a magnificent performance in the title role of Verdi’s ‘Luisa Miller’ for English National Opera back in early 2020, and was keen to hear her in a more scaled-down setting. Second, I was looking forward to the interplay between Llewellyn and her duo partner for the project, Simon Lepper, a collaborative pianist I really admire. And third, the project itself is a bold, fascinating statement: a disc devoted to songs by British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, whose brief life straddled the turn of the 20th century.
Llewellyn says in her liner notes that she could have made her first album a collection of Italian arias or similar (broadly speaking, the repertoire she is most associated with), but that she wanted her debut to be a passion project that broke new ground. Putting the album together involved an unexpected level of research because so many of Coleridge-Taylor’s songs were out of print – hard to believe when listening to the distinctive beauty of Llewellyn’s and Lepper’s selections.
I was surprised to discover that Coleridge-Taylor was from my patch – Croydon, a Greater London suburb in Surrey, UK. Our local commemorations to him are somewhat low-key. A blue plaque almost illegible from the street marks the house where he died in St Leonard’s Close.
He lies in Bandon Hill cemetery, some 15 minutes’ walk from my house. A cursory search reveals a headstone which, while decorative (and featuring some carved musical notation from his most popular work, ‘The Song of Hiawatha’), takes its place unassumingly in the midst of row upon regimented row of graves.
Perhaps most surreally of all, we have a quasi-statue of him on Charles Street – he’s depicted in subtle, metal outlines, along with fellow Croydon folk Peggy Ashcroft and Ronnie Corbett. (One wonders what kind of entertainment might have resulted if the three of them had ever had the chance to work together.)
This phantom-like representation seems sadly appropriate for a composer whose work largely seemed to vanish from public consciousness for decades. At least he achieved widespread success while he was around to experience it, if perhaps not enjoy it to the full. His popularity never quite translated into riches (many composers sold the rights to much of their music to bring in some short-term income), and his premature death at age 37 from pneumonia has been blamed on stress and fatigue.
If he’d lived longer, would the effect of a 40-50 year career have made his place in the pantheon more secure? Or – human nature being regrettably what it is – was his music always going to ‘disappear’, in the same way we find so many female composers have been waiting, just under history’s surface, for these days of rediscovery and reappraisal?
Fortunately, artists like Llewellyn and Lepper are firmly on the case. Coleridge-Taylor wrote far more art songs than they expected – hundreds, in fact – but the duo have done an admirable job in choosing 25 tracks that hang together as a cohesive album, as well make the case for immortality.
In amplifying Coleridge-Taylor’s voice, Llewellyn acted on her realisation that the composer was, himself, drawn to set texts by female and/or black writers – that is, other voices too often unheard. We hear two complete song sequences: ‘Six Sorrow Songs’ (poems by Christina Rossetti) and ‘African Romances’ (poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar).
The ‘Sorrow Songs’ start the disc, and immediately give a flavour of something different in the mix. ‘Oh what comes over the sea’ and ‘When I am dead, my dearest’ have the sea references and pastoral lilt that help them fit comfortably alongside much art/folk song of the British Isles. But as the cycle progresses, it builds in gravitas to take on additional moods reminiscent of spirituals or the blues: the hesitant resolutions in the accompaniment to ‘Oh roses for the flush of youth’; the lullaby swing and melancholy minor change of ‘She sat and sang away’ or the dramatic tension of ‘Too late for love’.
Dunbar was a contemporary of Coleridge-Taylor, and while they don’t seem to have written together in a kind of prototype songwriting team context, the composer took some of the writer’s finished poems and set them. The music here is not obviously ‘African’ – ironic given Dunbar’s African-American nationality, and the role he played in encouraging Coleridge-Taylor to bring such elements into his work. But even here there is that stateliness written in for the voice, preserving that spiritual, weightier quality in comparison to the piano. Take ‘A starry night’, where the piano cascades in descending runs of notes, the fragments of cloud breaking into rain; or ‘An African love song’, where the tender longings of the vocal part can’t conceal the more excitable piano, moving more quickly, trying to suppress its call and response with itself.
This sequence also illustrates why Llewellyn and Lepper make such a great team for this (and no doubt, lots of other) repertoire. Lepper has a touch than can make the piano ‘dance’ as much as ‘sing’, with a sense of motion and energy that can glide through the richest, most luxuriant voices – like Llewellyn’s. (See also his work with tenor Ilker Arcayürek.)
For more of this sort of thing, look no further than ‘Canoe Song’ (based on part of a narrative poem by Isabella Valency Crawford), where Lepper frames Llewellyn’s delicate melody with playful, fractured, near-jazz, as the canoe floats amid ripples, or falls in line with deeper currents. Equally theatrical is ‘Big Lady Moon’, a children’s poem by Kathleen Mary Easmon where the humour of the lyric is given deadpan, yet delicious treatment as a sincere, serious torch song.
It’s an album so full of highlights, it was a fearsome task to single out certain tracks to mention and leave others for you to discover yourself – but that’s an experience I now envy you. Warmly recommended – and I hope Llewellyn is able to fulfil her aim to record as many songs by Coleridge-Taylor as she can.
Coleridge-Taylor watchers – along with everyone else! – should also investigate the new release from pianist Isata Kanneh-Mason, ‘Summertime’ (on Decca). It includes the world premiere of his ‘Impromptu No. 2’ in B minor, a miniature marvel of a piece, which again builds an initially stately, yet modest, theme up with elements of the spontaneity associated with an impromptu but suffused with a bluesy, slow swing.
The approach is more explicit, but just as captivating, on the three arrangements of sprituals which close Kanneh-Mason’s album: she makes a spellbinding advocate for Coleridge-Taylor’s extraordinarily descriptive writing – the fathomless swells underpinning ‘Deep River’, or the simmering anguish of ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’.
The album encompasses a range of moods across American (or US-inspired) music, with Coleridge-Taylor programmed alongside Earl Wild’s reverent, yet disarmingly robust arrangements of Gershwin (the shimmering title track and the frankly terrifying ‘I Got Rhythm’), Barber’s Piano Sonata and Copland’s ‘Cat and Mouse’ scherzo. Perhaps most startling of all, on an album that aims to dazzle as brightly as its yellow sleeve, is the more minimal, delicate Amy Beach piece, ‘By the Still Waters’, which paints as vivid a picture as any of the Coleridge-Taylor selections.
Photo credits –
Elizabeth Llewellyn: Lucy Cartwright.
Simon Lepper: Patrick Allen, Opera Omnia.
Local Croydon snapper: AA.