When the Empire Calls
Michael Halliwell (baritone)
David Miller (piano)
ABC Classics 476 8063
2-CD: TPT: 152’53”
reviewed by Neville Cohn
Although the poetry of Rudyard Kipling is not nearly as popular nowadays as it was during his heyday, his Barrack-Room Ballads remain a superbly authentic evocation of British soldiery at the height of Britain’s Imperial power. Certainly, Kipling had no peer in his ability to capture the dialectical essence of Queen Victoria’s troopers. In fact, during an era when Brittania really ruled the waves and patriotism, with its unfortunate overtones of racial superiority, Kipling’s verse was a magnet for British composers.
Their settings of Kipling’s words enjoyed a considerable vogue; they were standard music hall fare especially during the very first years of the 20th century when the Boer War raged. And during an era when making music in British front parlours was a mainstay of middleclass life, settings of Kipling’s poems figured prominently in the repertoire.
Many of the sentiments enshrined in Kipling’s verse as well as the 25 tracks devoted to popular songs of the Boer War are now – to put it mildly – politically incorrect. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, Britain’s notions of Empire strike one as repellent with their breathtakingly condescending attitudes to the indigenous people of the annexed territories which were usually taken without a shot being fired.
Michael Halliwell is just the person to breathe life into these songs. His diction is impeccable, his musicality beyond reproach. And the occasional moment when vocal control is less than entirely secure is more than made up for by the acuity of his interpretative probings.
Throughout, David Miller provides first rate support at the piano. In fact, as a team, Halliwell and Miller provide the last word in stylistic integrity.
Numbers of these songs have been rescued from near oblivion; others have retained a modest place in the repertoire.
Boots is a delight in this setting by J.P.McCall. Its extrovert, rather jolly, tramping beat comes across splendidly. Arguably the best known of the set is On the Road to Mandalay in the famous setting by Oley Speaks.
The liner notes make fascinating reading.
Copyright 2006 Neville Cohn