GMCD 7208 – The Cloths of Heaven – Songs & Chamber Works by Rebeca Clarke

Patricia Wright – Soprano, Jonathan Rees – Violin, Kathron Sturrock – Piano

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American Record Guide – March/April 2001

Rebecca Clarke stopped composing when she was 68, though she would live for another 25 years. Her reputation rests mostly on two fine chamber works, her Viola Sonata and Piano Trio, but she wrote many other works in other forms that are worth hearing. This new recording explores 25 of her 53 extant songs, along with three pieces for violin and piano, Midsummer Moon, Chinese Puzzle, and Lullaby.

As far as I can tell, these are the first songs by Clarke that have come our way at ARG. Those familiar with her chamber music will recognize the usual landmarks: modal English pastoralism and more than a hint of impressionist color. Her setting of John Masefield’s “June Twilight” is evocative, while “A Dream”, composed to a text by Yeats, could easily be mistaken for Debussy or one of his followers. Clarke could write sympathetically to almost any text, as she proves when she tackles Blake’s “Tiger, Tiger”. Even if she doesn’t quite rise to the level of Blake’s poem, her setting is a noble effort, appropriately sinister. She writes for the piano as an equal partner with the voice. Much of the effect in “Tears” and “God Made a Tree” comes from the piano part’s unexpected harmonic turns and unusual colors.

In my review of Hyperion’s new release of Vaughan Williams songs (Jan/Feb 2000), I praised his originality in setting a pair of English folksongs for voice and violin. But Clarke set three English and three Irish folksongs for the same combination several years before RVW’s 1928 effort. They’re every bit as effective as the elder composer’s, full of folk flavor, and Jonathan Rees plays better than his counterpart on Hyperion.

Patricia Wright sings faultlessly. Her voice is smooth and steady. She can float soft pianissimos or fill the room with sound without sounding strained. She approaches the songs intelligently; everything is shaped as it should be. Kathron Sturrock’s playing is just as satisfying.

The sound is very clean, spacious and open. My only complaint is that the singer and especially the violin are too close to the microphones, making the latter sound much larger than life, even threatening to mask the piano. Things are less disturbing in the vocal selections, but the dynamic range is still too much, making a comfortable listening level difficult to find. The piano, farther back, is at least spared exaggerated dynamics, though one wishes it were on a more even footing with the singer and violinist.

The booklet has good notes and almost complete texts. The almost is the result of copyright complications that prevented the printing of three of the poems.

BBC Music Magazine February 2001

Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) was Stanford’s first woman composition Student, and worked in London as an orchestral and chamber violist before spending the next 40 years in the USA. This selection of her songs shows a sensitive response to English poetry, a flair for piano textures and a modest gift for melody, often modal in the vein of Vaughan Williams. If few of them hit the spot of memorability like the best of, say, Quilter or Howells among her contemporaries, there are songs to texts by Masefield, Yeats and Biake which are certainly well worth reviving.

On this recording (made in 1992), the New Zealand soprano Patricia Wright deploys a clear and attractive voice, well produced over a wide range, in performances which are consistently sympathetic both to melodic nuance and to words and mood. The pianist Kathron Sturrock is fluent and imaginative, though the slightly unfocused piano sound blurs some of her subtlety.

Welcome variety is provided by the violinist Jonathan Rees, who joins Sturrock in a poetic reading of the Impressionistic miniature Midsummer Moon, and partners Wright in arrangements of English and Irish songs which provide some of the discs most enjoyable moments.
Anthon Burton



International Record Review January 2001

The Cloths of Heaven, June Twilightac A Dreamac The Cherry-blossom Wandac The cloths of Heavenac, Shy Oneac, The Seal manac, Midsummer Moonbc, Down by the Salley Gardensac, Infant Joyac, Letheac, Three English Songsab, The Tigerac, Tearsac, God made a treeac, Come, oh come, my life’s delightac, Greetingad, The Donkeyac, Chinese Puzzlebc, Lullabyebc, Three Irish Country Songsab, Cradle Songac, Eight o’clockac, A Psalm of Davidac, The aspidistraac

Rebecca Clarke seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance, and not before time. It seems strange that it has taken so long – her work seems eminently suitable for revival, for both musical and less musical reasons. Her songs have a strong modal tang to them, fitting them squarely in the main- stream of early twentieth-century Eglish songwriting. They are lacking neither in  sweep nor in finer detail; for every perfect cadence there is a deft harmonic sidestep somewhere down the track. Patricia Wright’s creamy-toned performance is magnificent; these songs could hardly hope for a more appropriate or committed singer. Her projection of (and feeling for) the texts is excellent and her intonation likewise, allowing her to eschew vibrato entirely when the occasion demands.

Clarke adopts a variety of compositional tones for the songs on this disc, from the intimate to the massive (as in her setting of Psalm 63) – and the mock-massive (as in The Aspidistra, which immediately follows it). The more intimate songs, such as the marvellous The Cloths of Heaven, are perhaps more suited to present-day ears; some of the larger-scale settings have a patina of over-earnestness about them. Having been acquired in the intervening decades (and through an association with different music entirely), this is not at all Clarke’s fault, but it is also not easy for a listener to filter out completely.

Of the pieces for violin and piano, Midsurnmer Moon comes close to overdoing the modal arpeggios, and Chinese Puzzle is a fairly uneventful piece of pentatonicism. The two groups of three songs for voice and violin are far better justifications of Jonathan Rees’s presence. They are all arrangements of familiar

tunes: the Three English Songs include Morley’s setting of It was a lover and his lass, unfortunately without his subtle rhythmic twists – and there is also a slight mismatch of harmonic worlds. The Irish Country Songs are similarly provided with an accompaniment from a different musical planet – here it works more successfully, as much setting the tune in musical quotation marks as supplying a support for it.

Texts are all given where copyright permitted Guild to do so; there are some oddities, including differences in the printed and sung texts in Psalm 63 and some strange attributions. (ls ‘A. E. Houseman’ supposed to be A. E. Housman, and did either of them really write the words for ‘As I was goin’ to Ballynure’?)
Carl Rosman

The Boston Globe, p. D5, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2000

Concert gives life to mark left by Clarke
Music by Rebecca Clarke, Presented by the Rebecca Clarke Society

The recent and ever-growing interest in the music of Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979) can’t exactly be called a revival, especially because mostof her works remain unpublished. The two violin sonatas on this program, from 1909, had never been performed. Given that Clarke has gained recognition as one of the major British composers of her generation, this was a coup indeed. And it would be hard to imagine performances more beautiful than those on Saturday night by violinist Joanna Kurkowicz and Vivian Chang on piano.

Clarke’s music is rhapsodic in tone but not (which is rare) in procedure.

Sometimes she presents you with a folk song outright, sometimes merely glancing off it. She also has a penchant for wandering keyboard arpeggios that briefly come to rest on a trill — or rather a kind of rest, for the effect can variously be elusive, unstable, or even menacing.

The D Major Sonata contained these and other elements in masterful equipoise.

The first movement — vaultingly ambitious in scale, bewilderingly variable in tone of voice — might well have stood on its own. The one-movement G Major Sonata started off with a deep cold plunge into the thick of things, into the intense concentrated matter at hand. And Clarke has so structured it that, when that folk like tune comes around again, you’re entranced rather than otherwise. One was often reminded that Clarke was herself a highly accomplished string player; writing for the violin, she was obviously on terms of the deepest intimacy.

For the rest, “Chinese puzzle” (1921) amounted to an exercise in chinoiserie that was altogether uncondescending, seemingly based on Clarke’s experience (as a violist, she toured the Far East) of the real thing. “Midsummer-Moon” (1921) delivered what its title promised. In the three old English songs (1924), soprano Sarah Pelletier, sounded at her best.

Finally, some breaking news — on GMCD 7208, Guild has at last re-issued Patricia Wright’s radiant performances of the songs. Not to be missed!
Richard Buell