Heart & Hereafter: Songs of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor | Erica Jeal's classical album of the week

Elizabeth Llewellyn/Simon Lepper
(Orchid Classics)
The soprano’s debut, singing 25 songs by the mixed-race Victorian composer, is a delight – she and pianist Lepper really mine their essence

“I could have recorded some Puccini or Verdi”, writes Elizabeth Llewellyn – and that would have been the obvious choice for the debut recital recording from a soprano so much at home on the operatic stage. Instead, she and the pianist Simon Lepper give us 25 little discoveries, songs from the extensive but little-known output of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper: Heart & Hereafter album cover
Elizabeth Llewellyn & Simon Lepper: Heart & Hereafter album cover Photograph: PR handout undefined

The composer was born in Croydon in 1875. His father, Dr Taylor, had been a medical student, and returned to his home country of Sierra Leone before the birth of his son; his mother named him after the poet (the hyphen in his name allegedly came from a printer’s error later in his career, which he decided to adopt). Coleridge-Taylor met head-on the challenges of advancing in Victorian society as the mixed-race child of an unmarried woman, and gained the admiration of Elgar, Parry, Stanford and others before his early death.

His songs show a melodic instinct to make Sullivan (another fan) jealous, and an independent spirit in their choice of poetry. Llewellyn’s selection includes the Six Sorrow Songs, in which Coleridge-Taylor’s music amplifies the wistful melancholy in Christina Rossetti’s words, and three Songs of Sun and Shade, setting sensual poetry by the lesbian writer Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall. The seven African Romances have words by the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar; with their open harmonies and lilting rhythms, these reflect an idea of Africa rather than any actual experience of the continent, which Coleridge-Taylor never visited.

His style recalls Grieg or Dvořák, and while most of the songs may lack the last spark of inspiration that would make them unforgettable, several offer gloriously indelible earworms. Llewellyn soars through them, Lepper skilfully catching each song’s character; it’s not surprise that her voice is on the big side for some, but when the music requires poised stillness she is especially captivating. There’s plenty more where these songs came from, and Llewellyn drops a welcome hint that another Coleridge-Taylor collection might be on the cards.

This week’s other pick

Vasily Petrenko stepped down last summer as chief conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic, and his final recording with them shows an orchestra in fine form, with classy wind soloists and big-toned strings. Prokofiev’s Symphony No 6, full of momentum and punch, is the foil for a revealing performance of Myaskovsky’s Symphony No 27, in which dark energy and contemplation in the spirit of Vaughan Williams’s wartime symphonies ultimately gives way to celebration.


Erica Jeal

The GuardianTramp

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