INKPOT#85 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: The Lark in the Clear Air – Traditional Songs. Cambridge Singers/City of London Sinfonia/Rutter (Collegium)
The Lark in the Clear Air
Traditional Songs from England, Ireland and Scotland
Love and courtship
I know where I’m going
She moved through the fair
The lark in the clear air
Down by the sally gardens
Dashing away with the smoothing iron
The spring time of the year
The sprig of thyme
Soldiers and Sailors
The bold grenadier
The British Grenadiers
The dark eyed sailor
The keel row
The girl I left behind me
Just as the tide was flowing
Songs of lost love
O waly, waly
She’s like the swallow
The lover’s ghost
The willow tree
The miller of Dee
O can ye sew cushions
The Cambridge Singers Members of the City of London Sinfonia
conducted by John Rutter
Libretto in English only.
COLLEGIUM RECORDS COLCD 120
by Chia Han-Leon
The premise here is simple and appealing: traditional (folk-)songs arranged for choir and in many cases, a small orchestra. The essence of the music is from the British Isles, spanning a range of themes from love to soldiering, the sea, nature and of course, the lullaby.
This music is highly attractive in the distinct way of British/Celtic/Scottish (you get the idea) folksong – beautifully melancholic, with that Enya-esque far-and-away atmosphere, tinged with the winds of nostalgia and the nocturnal serenity of human warmth.
These songs brought me delight and pleasure [in the 60s], and they still do now, though pleasure has become tinged with nostalgia because, for the most part, they are forgotten and gone from our lives, perhaps forever. This album is an affectionate tribute to their composers and poets; a few were renowned, most were obscure or unknown, but the songs they created were famous, and I remember them fondly.
The folk origins aside, perhaps the credit to be raised here is towards the arrangers – John Rutter himself of course, master of this sweet genre. His additions for oboe, flute, violin and such like are tiny wonders, perhaps nothing original, yet undeniably pleasant. For example, the calls of the flute in the title work, The lark in the clear air, obviously aluding to the bird; or the sweet yet pensive contributions of the clarinet in Down by the sally gardens.
At the same time there are famous tunes in Rutter’s totally fun arrangements, like The British Grenadiers, light-heartedly; The keel row with its pixie-ish woodwind accompaniment; or the gaiety and sunniness of The girl I left behind me – every one here is a complete triumph on this album – I can’t imagine any choral person hearing this without developing a desperate desire to acquire the score!
There is a luscious She moved through the fair arranged by Daryl Runswick, whose slow wordless “la-la” for the female choir floats with perfumed grace, almost teasingly, behind and around the male chorus singing of his love’s comings and goings – “It will not be long, love, till our wedding day”, they final chime lovingly together.
Another arranger from a recent past is also a master of this art: Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose Five English Folk Songs are cast in this CD, though tracked separately because the album is sequenced thematically – The dark eyed sailor, The spring time of the year, Just as the tide was flowing, The lover’s ghost and the Wassail song.
The poetry of the words is simple but evocatively honest. W.B.Yeats gives us the words to the famous Down by the sally gardens. Solo strings adorn the poetic ironies of The sprig of thyme, whose lady protagonist muses on her loss of her sprig of thyme/time to love. Opening the section entitled “Songs of lost love” is the irresistible The cuckoo, mainly for harp and women’s voices – utterly utterly beautiful this is. Listen too for the scoring of the word “cuc-KOO”.
All these qualities can be summed up in a few choice songs – one such is the absolute gem that is Rutter’s arrangement of The bold grenadier. The orchestration includes harp and flute, especially evocative when combined with a choir.
The words depict the female poet encountering a couple “a-making of hay”, a grenadier and a fair maid. In a strange poetic ellipse, the couple are the ones who speak first, asking the poet where she is going. “I am going a-walking by the clear crystal stream, /To see cool waters glide and hear nightingales sing.” – the reaction to this answer is elliped; the couple suddenly turn towards each other. The fair maid asks the soldier to marry her, but he politely and sweetly declines, saying, “I’ve got a wife at home in my own country; /Two wives and the army’s too many for me.”