Donald Swann

Donald Swann
Swann Songs
Felicity Lott s, Kathryn Rudge ms, John Mark Ainsley t,
Roderick Williams bar, Christopher Glynn p
Hyperion CDA68172 (2CD)

Around the time skiffle was taking off in England and Bill Haley and the Comets were rocking around the clock, two men went on stage in a west London theatre with At The Drop of a Hat, a collection of funny songs they’d been writing since they were at school together. It was an instant success, with the witty wordsmith Michael Flanders declaiming from his wheelchair while at the piano, looking slightly daffy, was Donald Swann. Over the next decade the British radio public came to love their bestiary of wallowing hippopotami and gnus, the botched visit of the gasman and the pleasures of riding on a London Transport 97-horsepower omnibus.

But Swann had his serious side. He was a much better pianist than these ditties allowed and throughout his life he set several poems to music. He was an eclectic reader because alongside English poets Blake, Hardy, Milton, Tennyson and Rossetti, this Hyperion two-disc set features settings of Europeans Hesse, Rilke and Heine, the Americans Dickinson, Frost and Millay as well as Alexander Pushkin. Swann’s father grew up in Russia, giving his son an abiding fascination with the country.

Nothing on this collection lasts longer than five minutes and the all-English cast of singers – Dame Felicity Lott, baritone Roderick Williams, tenor John Mark Ainsley and mezzo soprano Kathryn Rudge – are perfect for this light material, aided by Christopher Glynn’s attentive piano.

Among the highlights, a set of John Betjeman poems captures the politely repressed sexuality of post-war British social life while Shakespeare gets a sprightly makeover on It Was a Lover, and his Lass and Robbie Burns’ My Love is like a Red, Red Rose is a pleasant alternative to the familiar Low Down In the Broom tune popularised by Kenneth McKellar.

The collection will take you back to a time when the BBC was Home Service, Light Programme and Third Programme – and never the genres were crossed.