CentenaryShow Of Hands et al., with Jim Carter & Imelda Staunton
Album: Centenary: Words & Music Of The Great War
Label: Universal/Mighty Village
Tracks: 34

Oh goodness, I can hear you say, do we really need yet another show to remind us that this year is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War? Well actually, if the exercise is carried out with this amount of sensitivity and creativity, then yes. For this unique and powerful project teams the premier acoustic duo with two of this country's most distinguished actors, to produce a quasi-cinematic experience that aims to match the remarkable poetry of those war years against the music of the era, along with new musical compositions inspired by the war.

The format is simple but effective: two separate CDs, one of poetry and the other of songs. The first CD presents 22 readings of poems from the war, superbly rendered by Jim and Imelda, with a quiet dignity and intimacy and without a touch of contrivance or artifice or sentimentality, to a backing track of incidental music; this largely comprises snatches of popular songs of the First World War, in new performances by Show Of Hands (with friends, these including Miranda Sykes, Jackie Oates, Jim Causley, Phillip Henry, Geoffrey Lakeman and Andy Cutting). In these cases, the impact and interest comes not with the performances themselves but instead lies in the creative juxtaposition, the contrast between the musical extracts and reminiscences-cum-reveries (which are often jaunty and light in nature), and the poetry (which is very often stark and brutal, or gloomy and despair-laden).

The context is both of its time and as a commentary from that time. Having said that, even the choice of poetry springs some surprises, with the bringing of fresh perspectives through the inclusion of work by female poets (Jessie Pope, Katherine Tynan, May Wedderburn Cannan) and the counterpoint of these with the half-expected Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, W. B. Yeats and Siegfried Sassoon pieces and items by Isaac Rosenberg, Ivor Gurney, Lawrence Binyon and - a discovery this - Alan Seeger (Pete's uncle). The whole of disc one forms a poignant and thought-provoking sequence that proves unexpectedly repeatable for the listener.

The second CD may ostensibly take the form of a sequence of music, chiefly new original compositions, many of which turn out to be by Steve Knightley - but it's far from being a Show Of Hands record in any usual sense that contains a number of readily defined stand-alone songs each with its own defined topic, argument or situational stance. A few of the dozen tracks do conform to such a structure, more or less - the tremendously poignant Coming Home and Goodbye 'Til The Next Time, for example, and guest Chris Hoban's Love Will Make The World Go Round - but some others are treated more like a stream of consciousness that keeps drifting in and out of focus, a dream sequence in a film about the war perhaps, with the context of today, our contemporary perspective as portrayed in the songwriting, being shot through with snatches of memories.

This may entail including some of the popular songs heard on CD1, here often drawn in by the device of direct musical counterpoint, as during The Padre which brings in the Thaxted melody previously heard backing The Soldier on disc one, now with its "I Vow To Thee My Country" resonances; or it involves the gentle interweaving of snatches of a recalled folksong (in the case of The Gamekeeper, appropriately The Keeper, but also the "love grows old and waxes cold" refrain from many a traditional song). Steve Knightley also turns in an intriguing setting of A.E. Housman's The Lads In Their Hundreds, while The Blue Cockade is given in a passionate, matchless live recording from the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, gaining immense additional impact from its placing and context here. The disc finale Requiem, with Steve Knightley's setting is introduced by an excerpt from Lawrence Binyon's poem For The Fallen; eerily intoned by the actors from disc one, this provides continuity with the project as a whole (and indeed, you'll recall the Show Of Hands/Jim Carter connection that stretches right back to their collaboration on the 1990 Tall Ships project).

Three tracks on Disc 2 comprise fresh covers of repertoire standards: a straight but intensely sincere Silent Night (Messrs Knightley, Oates and Causley), a really lovely take on The Sunshine Of Your Smile by Miranda Sykes and Rex Preston, and Phillip Henry's distinctly quirky solo harmonica rendition of It's A Long Way To Tipperary (where his use of a beat-box cheekily mimics trench explosions!)

As I said, a very powerful result from an intriguing and intelligent project that really does add to our appreciation both of the issues concerned and of the events being commemorated. The presentation is first-class too, with attractively designed package containing full personnel credits as well as the lyrics to the original songs, and an insightful booklet essay by Robin Denselow.

David Kidman

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