Bob Briggs
MusicWeb International
October 2008

I first heard Alec Roth’s music when I recently reviewed the new Hyperion disk Romantic Residues (Hyperion CDA67725), which included two of his works, and was most impressed by his settings of Vikram Seth. This disk offers two more settings of Seth—Songs in Time of War for tenor, with violin, harp and guitar and Chinese Gardens for tenor and guitar—separated by two short pieces for solo guitar.

The twelve songs which make up the Songs in Time of War are settings of Vikram Seth’s verse after the Chinese poet Du Fu (712–770). As befits such delicate and fragrant poetry the settings are sparse, the music never getting in the way of the words, but amplifying and embellishing them with a delicate wash of sound. The vocal line is purely lyrical—as all vocal music should be—and there’s nothing flashy or virtuosic about the writing—the settings are syllabic so the words aren’t lost in melismata—and despite the origin of the text Roth achieves, from time to time, a very English sound in his music. The accompaniment for harp, violin and guitar is, in general, restrained and Roth achieves a marvelous variety of sound which is always attractive to the ear and never monochromatic. This work is a major addition to the English song repertoire, perhaps it might just be one of the most significant cycles written since the death of Britten. One hopes that the unusual scoring doesn’t make it too difficult to programme.

Seth’s (original) texts for the cycle Chinese Gardens were inspired by visits to four of the Ming Dynasty gardens in the Chinese city of Suzhou. Seth’s language, as you would expect, is richer than the early Chinese poetry of Du Fu and Roth’s settings are fuller and more florid, the vocal line being full of ecstatic melismata. Strangely, this cycle seems larger than the Songs in Time of War perhaps because the songs are bigger in scope. The accompaniment, this time for guitar alone, supports and compliments the vocal line. These songs are true gems.

It must be difficult for any English composer working today to shrug off the mantle of the vocal works of both Britten and Tippett and write truly original vocal music but Roth has succeeded admirably. This is music of strength, originality and sensuality. Roth’s is a true original English voice.

Between the two cycles come two miniatures for solo guitar. Despite their Spanish names there’s nothing Spanish about them, musically speaking. They prove a delightful foil to the songs. Mark Padmore is a fine singer, who is in full control of his voice. His is a very flexible tenor, with a full bodied middle range and lots of variety at the top. He is a joy to listen to, with his intelligent use of vibrato and variety of tone colour. He could almost be the heir to the great Ian Partridge, who has recently announced his retired from the concert stage. He is more than ably accompanied by Honoré, Nicholls and Szymanski.

The recording is fine, the notes full and helpful—with complete texts—and this issue must not be missed by anyone interested in English song, anyone interested in current trends in contemporary composition and anyone I have forgotten to mention. Put simply, this disk is a sheer joy.