Ronald Corp

Conductor & Composer

The Songs of Ronald CorpCD Reviews

‘The Songs of Ronald Corp’

After his superb disc of Butterworth Songs, smooth-voiced baritone Mark Stone now turns his attention to The Songs Of Ronald Corp (Stone Records).  British composer-conductor Corp, now in his late fifties, has a style that owes much to Vaughan Williams in its folk-influenced tunefulness.  His spare, bittersweet settings of twelve Housman poems and some interestingly febrile Walt Whitman settings are the highlights… they find terrific champions in Stone and pianist Simon Lepper, who perform them with sensitivity and intelligence.

Warwick Thompson, The Metro, October 2010

Ronald Corp is perhaps best known for his choral compositions but here he displays a knack for finding everyone’s favourite verse, whether comedic or rapturous, and setting it for solo voice with a simplicity that nonetheless achieves freshness and impact.  His odes to London are undemanding, but new partners Stone and Lepper invest them with sensitive shading while conveying vividly the darker, more muscular settings of Housman and the vigour of the settings of Whitman.

Classical Music Magazine, January 2011 (Four Stars – Recording of the Fortnight)

The remarkably varied songs of Ronald Corp are characterfully performed

Ronald Corp may be well known as a choral conductor, notably of children’s choirs but from boyhood onwards he has written songs, inspired by his love of poetry.  Here, very well sung by baritone Mark Stone accompanied by Simon Lepper, are no fewer than 39 songs – four cycles plus six very varied extra songs.

Flower of Cities, the first of the four cycles, is devoted to London, opening and closing with words from William Dunbar’s tribute, the text which Walton used in his seriously neglected cantata In Honour of the City of London.  Other songs set words by Byron, Wordsworth, Blake and Carey.  It is notable that Corp is never afraid of using extremely well-known words for his songs, hoping to add something to well-known lines.  The accompaniments are neatly illustrative, as for example the sound of water imitated in the accompaniment to Wordsworth’s poem, ‘Glide gently’.

Here, as in all four cycles, the songs are nicely contrasted, and though the conservative idiom suggests music that could have been written in the 1930s, the results are always attractive.  The Housman cycle consists of 12 brief settings, each with a clear, sharp idea, while the Whitman cycle has 10 songs, preceded by another Whitman setting, the best known of all, ‘Toward the Unknown Region’.  Here Corp recalls that his interest in Whitman was first inspired by the Vaughan Williams settings of his verse, as in the Sea Symphony.

Choice of poems could hardly be more eclectic, with Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ (not quite as striking as that of Victor Hely-Hutchinson, being in a steady rhythm), alongside ‘The Bath’, one of Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes.  Exceptionally, the easily tuneful Give to my Eyes, Lord, to words written by a fellow clergyman of Corp’s, is designed specially for children to sing.

Most striking are the Whitman settings, again strongly contrasted.  ‘As if a Phantom caress’d me’, with very spare accompaniment, is followed by ‘Joy Shipmate’ to a hornpipe rhythm and finally, rounding off the whole disc, ‘Then last of all’, with the sparest possible accompaniment.  All told, a welcome disc to add to that of Corp’s more substantial orchestral works.

Edward Greenfield, Gramophone, February 2011

Corp has been writing songs from a young age, but this is the first commercial release of any of them.  His idiom is unabashedly tonal, as far from modish as possible, but much stylishness and keen feeling are embedded in these 10 finely performed items, four of them song sets, six free-standers.  Among the latter, the setting of Tennyson’s Break, Break, Break is notable.  Another evocation of the heartbreak of days gone by, Housman’s ‘Into My Heart an Air That Kills’ inspires one of Corp’s most striking and austere inventions.  Outstandingly stark, too, is ‘A Clear Midnight’, from the 10-song Whitman set.

Paul Driver, The Sunday Times, January 2011

[The setting of] ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ offered here is entirely characteristic of this composer: tuneful, well characterized, sensitive to rhythm and metre, and to Lear’s gentle humour; it is largely syllabic and endowed with a fluent and graceful piano part.

Mark Stone’s elegant baritone, with his wonderfully clear diction, falls very enjoyably on the ear, as it does on every one of the 39 tracks on this disc.  The recording, made in Potton Hall in Suffolk, is top class, and I include in that the piano, which in the hands of Simon Lepper sounds like an absolutely equal partner.  More than this, even: I would suggest that one of Corp’s several strengths as a song writer is his ability to reinforce and amplify his chosen texts – to add value, if you like – by the creation of clever and striking piano accompaniments, which not only bolster the singer and the sung line but instantly create a mood, or in a deft change of harmony suggest a new atmosphere or a shift in direction.  Thus the clutch of songs about London with which the recital opens finds majesty in Dunbar, nostalgia in Byron, depth in Wordsworth’s famous sonnet on Westminster Bridge.  At the other end of the disc, Whitman’s ‘Joy, Shipmate, Joy!’ is almost a sea-shanty: do I detect a faint hint of irony in the setting itself?

Perhaps not: the other songs in Corp’s Whitman settings are taken entirely at face value, and are perhaps the least memorable here.  This is an early cycle dating from the 1970s, and Whitman’s diffuseness is a tough task.  A Tennyson song, from even earlier, Break, Break, Break, is likewise a good example of the song writer learning his craft the hard way, rather struggling to mesh musical metre and poetic rhythm and sense.  You will have gathered that Corp is not afraid to go where others have trod before.  Blake’s ‘I Wander through each Chartered Street’ will inevitably evoke Britten; the composer himself admits in his own ideal and modest booklet note that he cannot hope to match the immortal settings of Fletcher’s Sleep by Gurney and Warlock; while in selecting A. E. Housman’s poems, from A Shropshire Lad and two later collections, he again invites comparisons, starting with Vaughan Williams and Butterworth.  I think Corp’s settings of this bleak poet are some of the best things here: choosing his texts judiciously and creating a well-formed cycle of 12 songs, he moves into a musical idiom rather more astringent than most of the rest of the disc: I very much like the lean and angular response to a familiar lyric such as ‘Into My Heart an Air that Kills’and he recognizes that in ‘It nods and curtseys and recovers’, the flower in question is… the nettle.

There is humour here, too.  I thought of Poulenc in the music-hall echoes in The Bath, a setting of one of Harry Graham’s comic and delectable Ruthless Rhymes.  In the deftest of juxtapositions, the pig in ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ makes a reappearance!  The track immediately succeeding that song is a setting of another nonsense lyric, anonymous this time, called ‘The Irish Pig’.  The animal in question is too proud even to keep company with a drunken Irishman in the gutter.  Magic!  That is just what I mean about adding value: not just the music itself in reinforcing text and meaning but the whole planning and execution of this disc are designed gently to make us think, and smile, and respond in an appropriate fashion, and deftly to underline our response.

Piers Burton-Page, International Record Review, February 2011