Richard Rodney Bennett’s cycle is an ideal and most tempting introduction to the repertory for a young singer. The unaffected, poignant charm and natural wit of the texts by Marjory Fleming (1803–11), a Scottish child, contribute to the piece’s entertaining and enchanting effect. Misspellings in the text are left uncorrected except, as the composer says, when it would affect correct pronunciation. The remarkably direct stanzas with their uncanny wisdom find a warm response in the composer’s characteristically mellifluous vocal style. The wit of the verses is aptly mirrored in music of striking versatility and delicate judgment. As the composer explains in the score, several of Marjory’s poems are about her closest friend and cousin, Isabella Keith. The songs because of their freshness, are definitely suited to a young soprano voice. They sound even better when sung with a slight Scottish accent: the dedicatee and original performer is the Scottish soprano, Sasha Abrams. The five songs are perfectly balanced to provide interest in pace and mood. The vocal lines are supple and not quite as simple as they may seem at first and the rhythms are frequently surprising. Many subtle shadings underpin key moments in the texts. The central song, ‘On Jessy Watsons Elopement’, is the most difficult; it requires good rhythmic articulation and a wide variety of dynamics and melodic range. ‘Sonnet on a Monkey’, the last song, is a small masterpiece of artfulness and grace, sure to delight all listeners as it brings the cycle to an exuberant and tongue-in-cheek close.
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