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Burnside's outlandish farrago yielded many gems: Richard Rodney Bennett's 'Dream Song' berceuse; a pair of Noel Coward ('Nina' -- from Argentina -- sung by ensemble, and Roderick Williams's joyously impudent 'I like America' -- 'In Dallas Tex they talk of sex/But only think of oil'); then Flanders and Swann's deliciously unpronounceable Tongan 'no' ('Hoolimakitilukacheecheechee').

An American Songbook, Julian Philips' enterprising take on urban America, in the guise of the poetry of Langston Hughes, deserves to become a classic: if ever composer and text fitted each other like a glove, here they are. There's a verve, a thrust, a vitality and a wonderful musical imagination at work, be it the slow and haunted 'Subway face' (almost a direct descendant of Housman's redcoat), the musing and pipe dreaming 'Elevator boy', the languorous, lullaby-like Nachtmusik backcloth of 'Stars', the scampering 'Harlem Night Song' with its Wesendonck-like falling seconds, the naïvely optimistic religion/superstition-tinged 'Pastoral', the touching farewell of 'Disillusion' or the overtly Cavafyesque perfumed, room-locked lovemaking of 'Desire'. One joy of these 'Songbooks' is that -- subject to some common sense over key (or proxi-key) relationships -- one palpably didn't work here -- you can make your own cycle, with as many or as few as you want.

Susan Bickley
Susan Bickley

Mezzo Susan Bickley entered right beneath the skin of Philips' vocal lines and the mixed loneliness, rapture and celebration of these 'gay' yet somehow universal texts, just as, with Burnside in keen-eared attendance, she brought life to Adrian Jack's 'Chinese Bossanova' and prised delights next day from two Scots poems, Soutar's The Pulm Tree (set by Ronald Stevenson) and Hugh MacDiarmid's Milk-Wort and Bog-Cotton (set by Francis George Scott). And in Holst's Vac (hymn to the Vedic Juno or Queen of All), her declamation brought to mind Janet Baker: a Maria Stuarda or (conversely) a Gloriana in the making.

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Copyright © 24 July 2005 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK


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