CD Review: Somm Recordings’ ‘Cushendall’

By Alan Neilson

To coincide with the centenary of the death of the composer Charles Villiers Stanford, the Somm label has released a new disc entitled “Cushendall,” comprising his three Irish song cycles, “A Fire of Turf,” “A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster” and “Cushendall,” along with two arias from his opera, “Shamus O’Brien” and the “Blarney Ballads,” performed by mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty, baritone Benjamin Russell, and pianist Finghin Collins.

Stanford was a prolific Anglo-Irish composer born in Dublin to a wealthy Protestant family in the second half of the 19th century. A man of his class, his time, and his religion, he would have had little interaction with the Catholic poor of rural Ireland and spent most of his adult life in England. The Ireland he knew was, therefore, a romanticized version, associated with mystery and imagination. It was also an Ireland that he felt was fast disappearing under the pressures of urbanization and modernization. Real or not, it was a nostalgic vision of Ireland that lay close to his heart. This can be heard in much of his music, particularly in his Irish song cycles, with their quasi-folk melodies, often touched with a sentimental veneer that reflects his loss and nostalgia for the passing of the country’s traditional ways and natural beauty.

Impressive Song Cycles 

It is the song cycles that really shine in this collection, and they will appeal to anyone who is pained by the dramatic change and destruction of Ireland’s traditions and the rapid degradation of the country’s natural beauty. Each of the three cycles is peppered with individual pieces that depict the natural world and its varied connections with our physical and inner lives, as well as with the characters and traditions that we can easily relate to even though they have long since passed. The songs may have been written over 100 years ago, yet they feel very relevant to our atomized existence of today, where nature’s beauty and our communal bonds have been dangerously neglected and marginalized.

The first of the song cycles, “Cushendall,” dating from 1910, consists of seven songs to poems by John Stevenson from his volume of 90 poems entitled “Pat McCarty: His Rhymes.” The volume aimed to counter the then prevalent stereotype of the Irish held by the English, although Stanford’s choice for the opening song, “Ireland,” with its references to shamrock, rebellion, and its wild and green landscape with hints of emigration, draws heavily on the stereotype. It is, by far, the most sentimental of the songs in the cycle, playing up the deep, almost spiritual, bond between the people and the land. Yet it is also a touching portrait that is able to pull at the heartstrings of anyone who is able to identify with the land of their birth, and Carty’s rendition captures this relationship perfectly in a warm and sensitive interpretation.

One of the most attractive songs of the cycle, “Cushendall,” is a love song to the small town of Antrim, which lies on Ireland’s northeastern coast. The song is an elegiac, reflective poem that works on the layers that bind people to a place, which Carty beautifully evokes with her poignant phrasing that lingers gracefully, brilliantly bringing out feelings for a home that transcends the life of a person, unifying them to a place, to its nature, to the living and to the dead, and to that which they are forever attached.

Positioned at the center of the cycle are two songs, “The Crow” and “Daddy-Long-Legs,” which have a slightly different focus. The second of these draws an amusing picture of the awkward-looking arthropod, especially its legs, two of which end up in a bowl of porridge. While Carty’s animated reading successfully highlights the humor, Stanford also raises a smile with his references to Wagner’s ‘Fire Music’ from “Die Walküre,” as the daddy-long-legs dances around a candle flame.

The cycle finishes with a couple of songs that return to the theme of the natural world. The final piece, “How Does the Wind Blow?” is a strong work that relates how the four winds—north, east, south, and west—determine the cycle of the working year and relate to the peoples’ humor. Carty’s carefully accented and neatly crafted vocal line enables her to successfully capture the turbulence of the first three winds, as she allows her voice to rise and fall with sudden leaps, punctuated by brief points of calm. Finally, in the final stanza, she relaxes to reflect on the kindlier south wind that brings with it thoughts of love.

The second cycle, “A Fire Of Turf,” is a set of seven songs taken from Winifred Letts’ collection of poems, “Songs of Leinster,” which Stanford premiered in 1913. Sung by Russell, they conjure up pictures of the passing of the seasons, combined with reflections of the past. In “The Fair,” we feel the excitement as the ass and cart races along the road towards the fair, scattering all the animals out of the way. Russell provides an energetic, jaunty rendition and captures the emotions of the day, while in “The Chapel on the Hill,” he successfully takes on the role of an old man reflecting on his fond childhood memories of the local chapel.

In “The West Wind,” Russell shows off his interpretative skills to good effect as he conjures up a picture of the wind’s path across Wicklow. Reflecting the calm of the previous evening, his voice quickly gathers pace and urgency as the gale awakens, and his neatly placed accenting causes the vocal line to become turbulent and excited as the wind races across the Lough, then slows slightly before eventually picking up pace again. Eventually, he calls out in a state of agitation and desperation for the wind to relent. It is an exciting and detailed journey in which the listener is able to feel and imagine the full effect of the wind on the landscape.

A lot of credit for the success of this cycle must go to Russell’s handsome intonation and refined articulation along with the warmth of his palette and the intelligence with which he develops the vocal line.

In the same year, Stanford also set a further six texts from Lett’s “Songs of Leinster,” called “A Sheaf of Songs From Leinster.” On this occasion, they were randomly chosen rather than taken from a single grouping, four of which create portraits of recognizable characters that would have been found in most close, small communities. There is Mary Byrne, whom no one really had much time for, but now that she is dead, mourn her passing. There is the young Rosanne, who is a rogue and a thief and grows up to steal a man’s heart. There is “The Bold, Unbiddable Child” who is always getting into trouble. Finally, there is “Little Peter Morrissey,” who is neglected by his parents and would today most probably be taken into care, yet he is happy and carefree, hinting at the support and understanding he is probably receiving from the wider rural community. Carty sympathetically engages with the texts and music to create an intimate portrait of each of the characters, allowing them to develop and grow in the imagination.

There are two further songs in the cycle, “A Soft Day” and “Irish Skies,” both inspired by the Irish weather. “A Soft Day” is used to describe the weather resulting from clouds that drift in from the Atlantic, causing a semi-mist, semi-light drizzle that hangs over the land and is capable of soaking anyone caught outside for more than a few minutes. It is a beautiful song in which Carty evokes the aromas of the wet trees and flowers and conjures up pictures of the sodden landscape. Her onomatopoeic refrain “drips, drips, drips, drips” is articulated so clearly and sensitively that one can imagine the droplets forming on a leaf and falling to the ground.

Three Uncomfortable Inclusions

The “Blarney Ballads” are a real oddity which do not sit comfortably with the rest of the collection. Parodying William Gladstone for his stance on Home Rule, to which Stanford was very much opposed, they mock him in a heavy-handed, unimaginative manner. They have little in common with the characters and natural beauty of Ireland so expertly brought to life in the other songs. “The March of the Man of Hawarden,” which is a reference to Gladstone’s stately home in Wales, to the tune of “Men of Harlech,” is as much a mockery of the famous Welsh song as of Gladstone himself, and even Russell’s faux heroic and determined intonation, brilliantly done, is not enough to rescue, what is, an unconvincing piece.

A Strong Finish

The disc ends with two arias, both sung by Carty, taken from Stanford’s 1907 opera “Shamus O’Brien” with words by George H. Jessop, the second of which, “A Grave Yawns Cold,” provides Carty with the opportunity to show off her skill in presenting more extreme and dramatic emotions. Nora hears the sound of the banshee, which is heard when a family member is about to die, and she believes it is calling for her beloved Shamus. Imbuing her voice with anxiety and dread, Carty creates a powerful yet sensitive rendition which brings the disc to a fine ending.

Collins’ accompaniment is finely attuned to Carty and Russell’s visions for developing the full dramatic, descriptive and emotional qualities of each song. His playing has sensitivity and a pleasing rhythmic clarity, which adds to the beauty and emotional depth of each song. He catches the wild energy and turbulence of “The West Wind,” as well as the narrator’s desperation for it to still. In “A Soft Day,” one can feel the wet stillness hanging in the air and the water dripping from the trees. His understated, perceptive accompaniment in “Cushendall” helps elevate the song above the mere sentimental, allowing the work to connect to our fundamental relationship with place, nature and the past; that is, to factors essential for sustaining a healthy, meaningful life, rather than to manageable indicators, such as economic growth, equality, entertainment and a host of other superficial factors that we hear so much about today.       

The “Blarney Ballads” aside, this is a beautiful disc from which one can regain, if only temporarily, a sense of belonging, and a sense of our place in the world. It connects us to ways of life, to sets of values, and to a natural world that is fast disappearing, if not already gone, not just in Ireland but in societies all across the globe.

Stanford fashions his music to the text with a sensitivity that allows the listener to travel beyond the sentimental—if, of course, they are willing to be led. Carty, Russell and Collins’ ability to interpret the music to that end is near perfect.


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