Maltworms and Milkmaids
Orchestral arrangements of songs
Three Carols for Chorus and Orchestra
Nadine Benjamin Soprano
Ben McAteer Baritone
BBC Concert Orchestra
David Hill Conductor
EM Records (with BBC Radio 3) EMR CD080
Philip Heseltine is such a figure of exotic contradictions, it is often hard to separate his weird occult enthusiasms from his amiable music, written using the pseudonym Peter Warlock.
His writing years straddle the First World War, which he manoeuvred successfully to avoid in Dublin. For the rest of his life he roamed rural England and Wales, partied in Chelsea, befriended and dropped D. H. Lawrence, and relished tempestuous women; leaving several children who claimed him as their father. As a music critic he championed Bartok and van Dieren when nobody else was doing it in Britain, and ran his own magazine, Sackbut, for a while. Like Vaughan Williams and his close friend E. J. Moeran he was enthralled by folk song and the patterns of Tudor music. The biggest influence on his style, though, was Delius. He died of gas poisoning at the age of 36 in December 1930 in Tite Street and it was never decided whether leaving the gas on was deliberate or not.
Somehow he never seemed to settle to anything – perhaps these days he would have been diagnosed with classic ADHD – and the same is true of his music. Almost all of it comes in small chunks, reflected on this disc, where only the Serenade for Strings (written in 1921-22) is a single span lasting for more than 8 minutes. The restlessness is acute and is reflected in the 24 tracks here.
There is no point in hoping for anything else, though, and David Hill and the BBC forces make the case for the music’s substance with affection. Only a few of the pieces were orchestrated by Warlock himself – rather a shame because his string writing was very accomplished – but here the songs have been enriched by a myriad of hands including Frederick Bye, Reginald Jacques, Kenneth Regan and Raymond Bennell.
The light baritone of Ben McAteer is ideal for Warlock’s folk songs, whether genuine or pastiche. Any tone that was more operatic would sound mannered whereas McAteer has force when he wants it, without too much vibrato. The same is not true, sadly, of soprano Nadine Benjamin. The BBC Singers are, as always, immaculate (how absurd that ignorant corporate bureaucrats – vile creatures brought up on Thatcherite values – contemplate disbanding them). This is exactly the sort of music, too, light but well crafted, that the BBC Concert Orchestra exists to champion. For Warlock and English song enthusiasts this disc will be irresistible. For the general listener it is a gentle pleasure full of small gems.