Piers Burton-Page
International Record Review
July 2008

With a single important exception, the songs recorded here represent a charming cross-section of (comparatively) familiar, (mostly) sentimental and (mostly) English song. From Boyce and Handel, via Dibdin and various folk-songs, to Warlock, Quilter, Vaughn Williams and others, this is a road much travelled—and there is plenty of room for one more traveller, especially if he possesses the sweetly angelic voice of the treble Andrew Swait. This disc is largely a showcase for his beautiful modulated tones, impeccable diction and sheer musicality—not to mention what seems like an adventurous taste in repertoire, though no doubt there was assistance from outside sources, including the two collaborators of the disc, James Bowman and Andrew Plant.

There is room for a spiritual, and for a Flanders and Swann number (though nothing can approach the original: here, Slow Train lacks humour and even a bit of charm), and for some settings from America (Charles Ives burying the family dog) and Australia (two nice Williamson songs). Much of what we hear is reflective and even languorous, and I began to wish for something a little more dramatic from time to time. I think the only living composers represented are John Jeffreys, 80 last year, about whom I know embarrassingly little, and Michael Berkeley, represented by an early (1976) Christmas carol which he later arranged for choir.

There are eight pages of comprehensive, maybe even over-detailed notes by the pianist, as well as a page by Swait himself, in which he mentions his admiration for Bowman. The latter's participation in the proceedings is in fact relatively limited. The recording was made in a warmly resonant room at Cheltenham College, and is first-rate in quality. The younger singer's website at www.andrewswait.co.uk/ reveals that he is already a veteran.

Now to the exception mentioned at the outset. Grouped together near the start of the disc are six original songs by Britten (also included are several Britten arrangements). Two of them, duets, are published: The Oxen (1967), an absolutely mature and characteristically responsive setting of a profound Hardy poem, and The Rainbow (1932), a lovely and simple setting of word by Walter de la Mare, another favourite Britten poet. Preceding these four songs which appear to be unpublished and un-recorded, an which date from Britten's schooldays. They may even be unperformed until now, which makes these recordings world premières. The pianist here is Exhibitions Curator at The Red House in Aldeburgh, and presumably with blessing of the Britten Estate has disinterred these early pieces for a singer not much younger then Britten was when he wrote them.

The earliest would seem to be Witches' Song (1929) to the words by Ben Jonson; then from the same year come The Owl (Tennyson) and Diaphenia (Henry Constable). Lastly from 1930 there is Chamber Music (V). This sets the same poem, Goldenhair by James Joyce, that Britten's teacher Frank Bridge had used some years earlier. All four have an affecting naïveté, all are neat and trim, none is particularly memorable or perhaps even significant. Swait turns the first two nicely, while Bowman sings the Jonson and Joyce settings, and inevitably his long association with the composer lends an extra dimension to one's listening. It is good to have them available, from (in case of Andrew Swait) a singer of such evident talent and promise.