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Song Offerings

2 Song Cycles by Val Gavin
Julian Gavin: tenor
May Gavin: piano

$23   (Australian dollars)


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Val Gavin (1935–2003) migrated to Australia from the UK with her parents in 1950. She was offered a place at the Sydney Conservatorium but left due to her family's financial strictures. After her disastrous failed first marriage, Val met Melbourne-based Paul Gavin on a trip to Orange to visit her parents. After a whirlwind romance Val and Paul married and had three children. Val helped support the family with her work as an "official ABC accompanist", and was a familiar sight in Melbourne's theatreland. During this time, her fascination with composition matured, producing several song cycles, concertos, an opera, and many smaller works. Val always maintained that being a woman and an Australian was "two strikes against her" and having been spurned by the music publishers she eventually gave up composing, and devoted herself to teaching and later, performing with her daughter May as Duo Gavin for over 15 years. Her music is not cutting-edge in its modernity, but is notable for her gift of melody, her unique harmonic language and beautiful structure.

This CD offers world premiere recordings of two of Val Gavin's song cycles, sung by her son, internationally acclaimed tenor, Julian, and her daughter May, a Melbourne-based pianist.

Val GavinA Shropshire Lad
Song Offerings


“‘Song Offerings’ by Val Gavin (1935-2003) are two unpublished song cycles, here wonderfully performed by her son and daughter. They certainly deserve recognition as part of the great tradition of twentieth century English art song.”

I was moved by this CD. Not only are Val Gavin’s songs as beautiful as her sensitive face gracing the CD cover, and the performances of the highest quality, but the whole package is a loving tribute by Julian and May Gavin to her, their mother. The revealing and insightful biography that May includes in the CD notes makes fascinating reading and puts Val’s work in context. Clearly the siblings greatly admired her and are grateful for the love of music she instilled in them. And both have themselves excelled as professional musicians.

Julian, born 1965, now residing in England, has been a busy tenor, performing in top opera houses all over the world. He has recorded Don José in Carmen and the title roles in Ernani and Don Carlosfor Chandos Records. He was a very popular regular with OA many times. But disaster struck in 2011, when he was diagnosed with a serious neurological condition and had to withdraw from performing. (For details, go to Slipped Disc where he courageously writes about his struggle with his debilitating condition.

May, his younger sister, learnt piano from Val and at the early age of thirteen, obtained her Licentiate Diploma of Music. She and Val performed for fifteen years in Melbourne as “Duo Gavin” after Val had given up composing, and Val’s arrangements of many well-known pieces were often used. May teaches piano and is a regular accompanist and music director here and overseas, and she and her husband, the tenor, Raymond Khong, have performed extensively in Australia and made two discs on the Move label.

Judging from the two major song cycles recorded here – A Shropshire Lad (1967) and Song Offerings (1972) – Val Gavin had developed advanced skills in composition. She used conventional tonalities and she had a great flair for melody. They are strong pieces, well-constructed and full of feeling, and there is enough variety in her approach to the different texts that one’s interest does not flag during each cycle. There is nothing sentimental about her approach and her pieces would sit very comfortably beside those of the British school of art song that flowered in the early twentieth century – the songs of Frank Bridge, John Ireland, George Butterworth, Ivor Gurney, Armstrong Gibbs et al. She undoubtedly would have played their songs, as her parents were good amateur musicians, her husband Paul was a professional tenor, and she herself was a fine pianist and accompanist. Perhaps composing in this English manner reflected her deep nostalgia for the “Home Country”, which her daughter clearly describes in the revealing and insightful biography that is included with the CD.

May writes that her mother sadly carried many emotional scars. As a sensitive young child born in 1935, she experienced the terror of the WWII London bombing raids and then the loss of many classmates when her school was also bombed. She became a “rather silent solitary child”. The rented house in Brighton where the family had retreated, became a home to many young soldiers, with happy evenings singing around the piano. But needless to say, many of these lads left, never to return. She also had a disastrous first marriage to a sadistic man and after the divorce, she suffered a nervous breakdown from which she slowly recovered.

That she later chose fourteen poems from A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman (1858-1936) is not surprising as this collection of 63 poems on the transience of love, idealism and youth resonated so strongly with her. Housman’s poems were written in 1895, and became very popular during WWI and in its aftermath. Val arranged her choices so they describe the typical journey of one of so many carefree lads who lost comrades and loved ones because of war. They include such well-known poems as “When I was one and twenty”, “With rue my heart is laden”, “Bredon Hill”, and ”Is my team ploughing”, that have been set to music many times. Julian sings them superbly with his free operatic tone, excellent diction and nuanced feeling. No tight “English“ tenor sound here! May’s accompaniment is also first class. Both voice and piano parts are technically demanding, covering a wide range and using extended phrases, climactic high notes and virtuosic piano passages. Even the happier ones in The Stropshire Lad are veiled with a sadness that is both very moving and appropriate. They form a totally convincing cycle.

In the 60s, Val, now happily married, devoted every spare minute to composing, but her works met with constant rejections by the publishing houses of the period as her style was considered old-fashioned. Val used to sign herself as “Val Gavin, Esquire” on her business letters, as she felt she was disadavantaged by being firstly, a woman, and secondly, Australian! In Australia itself, I suspect her pieces would have been insufficiently “Australian” in character too, to attract interest at that period, if one recalls that in the mid-60s Sculthorpe was composing The Fifth Continent and Sun Music 1-IV, forging what was regarded as an authentic “Australian” soundscape. The ABC did recognise her as an “official accompanist of the ABC” but it did nothing to promote her compositions and only once was her work broadcast. She composed a full-length opera, many orchestral and instrumental works and songs, and arrangements for piano duo. Finally she gave up composing completely in the 70s and directed her energies to family, performing and teaching piano, and in 2003, she and her husband both died from cancer.

The background to the second cycle, Song Offerings, is also described in May’s biography. The family’s 1950 move to rural NSW made Val (now fifteen) feel disoriented and uncomfortable. Around this time she converted to Catholicism and religion continued to interest her throughout her life. She studied comparative religions in the 60s and 70s and the mystical and ecstatic nature of the works of the great Bengali poet, Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) resonated with her own spiritual understanding at that time. From his collection called Gitanjali(best translated as Prayerful offerings of songs) for which Tagore won the 1913 Nobel Prize for Literature, she set sixteen poems for tenor and piano in 1972.

They were well-suited to her “warm, lavish piano writing and the conversation between the extraordinary piano writing and the soaring tenor line represented to her a conversation between a soul and its creator” (May’s annotations). She said herself that ”Pluck this little flower” was one of her best pieces and represented how she viewed her work as a composer. My understanding is that she saw her pieces as humble offerings to her Creator. I found them very beautiful and absorbing. The poems are magnificent and again, Julian sings them with great sincerity and beauty of tone.

So this CD certainly succeeds in redressing the situation as her children (and no doubt many others who heard her works in live recitals during her life) believed that her compositions deserve recognition. As Julian wrote in his article in Slipped Disc: ” I am proud that we were able to get this music into the public domain where it belongs, a worthy addition to the great tapestry of twentieth century English song.“

© Inge Southcott
February 2018,

Circumstances may well inspire the listener to respond instantly to the heartfelt emotion in these songs. Val Gavin, a remarkable human being according her daughter May’s booklet biography, only had a brief flourishing as a composer. After moving from her native London to New South Wales, she used the resources of a late Romantic style unfashionable in the 1960s to personal ends. She died in 2003, in the same month as her husband; their son Julian Gavin, with May as well-established pianist, made this recording nearly seven years later. ShortIy afterwards, this truly world-class tenor – I'll never forget his Verdi Don Carlos at Covent Garden – was diagnosed with a rare form of encephalitis. The hope is for eventual recovery, but clearly it's a long haul.

There is no need to make allowances here. The rich tenor voice, lyric verging on helden, is used with superlative breath control and great power at climaxes which match the often refulgent nature of Val's piano writing, effortlessly negotiated by May. These settings of Housman's A Shropshire Lad compare well with Butterworth’s; they're often more robust and more agile in natural text-setting. Bredon Hill, with wistful piano bell-ringing between verses, is a good sampler of the feeling maintained throughout the disc, and Julian is searing in the darker, war-torn numbers.

The musical response to sometimes hazy Rabindranath Tagore is even richer in the piano writing, more varied still in mood-shifts and subtly inflected with oriental overtones. Miraculously, the long sequence never palls, constantly surprising in its sudden raptures.

Performance ★★★★
Recording ★★★★

David Nice
The BBC Music Magazine
July 2016

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 TP (1-900)



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