Magazine article The Spectator

A Two-Way Deal

Magazine article The Spectator

A Two-Way Deal

Article excerpt

The phrase 'English song' is often met with suspicion, bringing with it a whiff of the morris dance, the come, follow follow and the hey nonny no -- and the work of Roger Quilter, composing in the first half of the 20th century, is no exception to this reaction. However, for those with ears to hear and prejudices to shed, there are rare treasures to be found when a new recording of his complete songs for solo voice and piano is released at the end of February, sung by baritone Mark Stone, accompanied by the composer and conductor Stephen Barlow.

'Quilter and I go back a long way, ' says Stone. 'Three of his Shakespeare songs were some of the first things I ever learnt.

I was a late starter as a singer, and when I went to music college it appeared to me that everyone knew considerably more about everything than I did; so I thought, "Right, nobody else seems to be interested in Roger Quilter. He can only have written about 20 songs, so I'll just find the rest and learn them and then I'll be an expert in something." But because I was a typical feckless student, I didn't actually get round to focusing on them until years later when I found a book by Trevor Hold and discovered there were over 100 songs, which was a bit daunting.

Then I read Valerie Langfield's brilliant biography and discovered that there were 142, but the notion of completeness had really stuck by then, so I consulted her and it's been a fascinating sleuthing job.' 'Mark's a particularly gifted song singer, ' adds Barlow. 'He's a detailed performer and thinker and the smallscale really interests him. And he's the most amazing researcher; he combed through all the recording catalogues and spotted that it's really only the same handful of songs that have been recorded over and over again.' The idea of tackling the complete songs, rescuing some of them from obscurity, clearly appeals to both men. It has given them a perspective on the composer's work as a whole; the way in which it developed and took shape. They have not been tempted to pick individual favourites for special attention, finding repeatedly that the most unpromising or dull-seeming songs were nothing of the sort. 'On the first disc, ' (there will be four altogether) says Stone, 'there's a song called "Trollie Lollie Laughter" which, frankly, I had no hopes for at all. We rehearsed it a few times and thought, "Well, that'll do, we'll slip that one in somewhere halfway through the disc and no one will notice." Then, when we got into the recording studio, Stephen was playing it through and he stopped and said, "I think Roger had just spent a bit too long in the Savoy cocktail bar when he was writing this." Suddenly it clicked. We did it straight away, and it worked brilliantly.' Building a creative performing relationship of this intimacy is a deeply rewarding experience, and an intuitive understanding and trust grows as the work proceeds, as Barlow explains: 'Accompanying people on the piano has always been a huge delight, and I've been doing it since I was at choir school, for instrumentalists like Andrew Marriner, who's now principal clarinet with the LSO, and later for singers. When you get together with someone on a big project like this, you really begin to understand that it's a two-way deal, and as the partnership grows you begin to feel less like an accompanist and much more like a partner.' Stone agrees: 'The rehearsal is intensive, but I've noticed that we spent a long time on the first disc, the second was much quicker and the third quicker still. …

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