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Gone, but not forgotten, Hubert Parry's music finds a new lease of life

Pianist and broadcaster Iain Burnside describes himself as a "British music geek", which a casual glance at his discography might seem to confirm, but hardly reflects his engaging personality.

To describe him as an accompanist is also woefully inadequate, because Burnside brings a wealth of academic research and a skill for presentation to every project, as well as keyboard expertise and a sympathetic ear.

But that discography, which stretches across the NMC. Signum Classics, Black Box and budget Naxos labels, confirms his standing as an interpreter of repertoire by British composers and his popularity as a partner with some of this country's finest singers. Many will have encountered him via the Naxos discs of Vaughan Williams, Ireland, Butterworth and Finzi with baritone Roderick Williams, who has a huge following in Burnside's native Scotland. Williams has also partnered Lisa Milne on Moonstruck, an important recording of the songs of FG Scott on Signum, and Milne worked with Susan Bickley on the Verlaine Songbook (Black Box).

Sir Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten Judith Weir and Richard Rodney Bennett are also in that catalogue, alongside Liszt, Beethoven and Korngold. Via his associations with the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where he is a research associate – and building on the experience of 10 years of writing radio scripts – the pianist is now developing a parallel career as a dramatist, creating narratives to explore the lives and work of some of the composers he has championed.

His other fruitful new partnership is with Paul Baxter's Edinburgh-based Delphian records, for whom he has already made recital discs with soprano Irene Drummond and baritone William Berger and of the songs of Martin Shaw with Sophie Bevan, Andrew Kennedy and Roderick Williams. The latter is perhaps the closest parallel with his forthcoming release, From a City Window: The Songs of Hubert Parry, which will be out on January 14.

It features soprano Ailish Tynan, mezzo Susan Bickley and baritone William Dazeley and is indicative of the way Burnside is now able to choose to work.

"I like to have a range of voices on the work of a single composer. It is good to have your ear tickled," he says.

Thanks in part to the championing of Prince Charles, whose BBC programme about Parry screened a year or so ago, Burnside detects a revival of interest in Parry, but that has not been reflected in new recordings, and those in the catalogue feature single voices. Burnside also believes Parry has been under-rated and misrepresented.

"There is a tendency for British music to be teamed with lighter voices, and to think of Parry as a writer of pale English pastoral music, but some of his songs need real vocal oomph."

In fact, few people know any of Parry's songs beyond his setting of Blake's Jerusalem and the hymn I Was Glad – the two pieces for which he is famous. Burnside, on the other hand, has scoured all 11 volumes of the composer's songs to select the 27 that are on the new disc.

"I picked my own favourites and ones that would suit these singers vocally and temperamentally. Although Janet Baker sang a few, including O Mistress Mine and Proud Maisie, a lot of them are never done and a serious retrospective is long overdue."

It is Burnside's contention that Parry's songs should be placed alongside the leider of Schuman and Wolf and he points to the composer's background as principal of the Royal College of Music after Sir Charles Groves and alongside the rigorous composition teaching of Sir Charles Villiers Stanford as evidence of that Germanic basis.

"Edwardian music was very Brahmsian in feel, and if he were a German it is possible his songs would be done more."

Certainly Parry's choice of lyrics, setting the poetry of Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott, fits the model, and Burnside adds that Parry was an incredibly fastidious setter of text, making the songs' performance "therapeutic" for the singers, in the pianists assessment.

They may also have been therapy for Parry, he believes. The composer had made an unhappy marriage and writers have detected a strain of sexual frustration in his biography. Burnside identifies one of the songs he has chosen, What Part of Dread Eternity, as a setting of one of Parry's own poems that reveals much of that unhappiness.

Also tying the recording intimately to Parry's life is the venue used for the recording – the music room in the composer's childhood home, Highnam Court in Gloucestershire. Still privately owned, this Restoration house, built in 1658, was bought by his father, himself a distinguished artist and musician, Thomas Gambier Parry, in 1838.

Burnside is convinced the creation of a temporary recording studio there contributes to the success of the disc.

"It was his environment, the plasterwork decorated with angels playing harps, and somewhere he was happy. And it was a beautiful place to work."

From a City Window: Songs by Hubert Parry, is released by Delphian on January 14.

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