English Song Cycles

"What impressed me was the sense of involvement in the forward flow of the melody, which again and again picked me up and carried me along like a water skier. A poor singer makes you aware of the voice trying to interpret the music. A great singer often seems to become the music, and there were many moments on these records when this happened."

Colin Wilson



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Count Numa Labinsky (1925-1994) was chairman of Nimbus Records from 1971 until his death. Quite apart from his astute judgement in recording the likes of left-field musical aristocracy Shumsky, Perlemuter, Guller, Cuénod and Cherkassky, Labinsky was also a singer. He recorded and performed as a bass under the name Shura Gehrman. While his wider stage career ended in the 1970s he continued to record for Nimbus at Wyastone Leys well into the 1980s. Adrian Farmer was his congenial and sensitive collocutor at the piano. Farmer’s exemplary qualities are instantly patent one minute into Bright is the Ring of Words. Their recordings included the great Schubert song-cycles (NI5022, NI5023). Schumann, Brahms (NI5024) and English folksongs (NI5082). Gehrman’s bass voice was trained by Ninon Vallin and Reynaldo Hahn. When I say that Gehrman’s voice is peculiar I mean that its aural signature is distinctive. It’s astonishingly wide-ranging and is shaped close to speech. Many of these songs evince a ringingly-burred bass which can instantly turn to a honeyed confiding redolent of the finest English tenor. There’s a splendid blend of these two extremes on ‘trumpets’ in “rang the trumpets of the sea” from the Hely-Hutchinson song, The Song of Soldiers. While he condemned the ‘fixing of the voice in the mask or nasal cavities’ Gehrman is not averse to some well placed nasal acid as in Think No More Lad. There tone and rapidly speeded or slowed delivery conspire to achieve artistic effect. Listen to his characteristic way with the word ‘death’ in The Call; it is held without a falter or waver. Words are treasured, even idolised, syllable by component syllable. This can at times put him under stress as in the words ‘is hung with bloom’ of line 2 of the first verse of Butterworth’s Loveliest of Trees. A similar stress can be discerned in the words ‘copse’ and ‘sunshine’ in Linden Lea. Only rarely is there a hint of the over-precious but you can hear it in “the sight I see” in verse 1 of Look Not in My Eyes.
The booklet gives the words in full. What’s more they’re in a sensible font. The note-writer is Frank Granville-Barker. His essay is excellent though I would hardly say that Howells seems ‘lightweight’ by comparison with the RVW and Butterworth songs. The recording was made in the grand concert hall of Wyastone Leys, which was Gehrman’s home.
English songs meet a thoughtful and highly sympathetic exponent with an unmistakable voice.  

Rob Barnett, Musicweb-international.com

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