Thursday, 9 June 2016

C H Sorley A Swift Radiant Morning - Roderick Williams

Roderick Williams and Susie Allan  gave the world premiere of A Swift Radiant Morning commissioned for theThree Choirs Festival. Listen here, because it's an interesting work that extends the canon of British song. "A swift radiant morning" aptly describes Charles Hamilton Sorley, a young man of outstanding promise, killed by a sniper at Loos, seven months short of his 21st birthday.  At that age, few fulfil their potential, but  C H Sorley must have been quite a personality.  In this photo he stares at the camera without flinching, unfazed by the knowledge that he was going to war.  We can see why Sorley's father said "he looked upon the world with clear eyes , and the surface did not deceive him".
Sorley was in Trier when war was declared in 1914. On his return to England, he did his duty and joined the Suffolk Regiment . Yet in his poem To Germany, he writes of war with maturity way beyond his years. The poem is worth reading because it shows his inner strength. He could resist the hate games around him.  This lucid intelligence marks him out as a person with vision. Notice too his direct, yet highly distinctive, way with words. How he would have relished the freedoms of the 1920's and 1930's. Many good poets were destroyed by war - Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas, Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney, but John Masefield said that Sorley was the greatest loss.

In A Swift Radiant Morning, Rhian Samuel (b 1944) sets two poems and four texts by Sorley, which has a bearing on her musical conception. Sorley left only 37 complete poems, but a large body of letters. They make fascinating reading, since Sorley was an acute observer and processed ideas with great originality.  Here's a link to the full collection of letters published in 1916. Letters are like a conversation, where one party speaks and the other responds. The voice leads, but the piano comments, unobtrusively. Sorley's texts are so expressive that the piano can't quite compete, but that's no demerit.  Samuel respects Sorley's syntax and turns of phrase, editing the longer texts with sensitivity.    Roderick Williams is an ideal interpreter, since he has the uncanny ability to make what he sings feel personal and direct. A natural match for CH Sorley !  At times, Samuel forces the voice above its natural range. Williams manages extremely well, but I wonder if this cycle could be transposed for tenor.  A Swift Radiant Morning is a well-crafted, sensitive work which deserves attention, and not just because the subject himself was so singular. I've subscribed to a source which features a lot of Rhian Samuel's work. Lots worth listening to.

At Hereford, Roderick Williams and Susie Allan also did Tim Torry's The Face of Grief (2003) to poems by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928) but the setting is minimal and the poems not  in the same league as Sorley's.  Please also read my piece on the rest of Roderick Williams's  recital, which highlighted Elgar's Sea Pictures, in the piano version, transposed for baritone. 

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