Seabourne Steps, Volume 8: “My Song in October”.  September, Just Septembers*

Michael Bell (piano). *Karen Radcliffe (soprano).

Sheva Contemporary  SH326 (75 minutes)

Guy Rickards reviews the latest release of music by a composer who constantly flies under the radar.

This album is something of a memorial to two highly gifted women, both taken far too soon by cancer: Marcelle Seabourne, an artist and wife to the composer, and Karen Radcliffe, wife to pianist Michael Bell, who together recorded the song set September, Just Septembers in 2004 a couple of years after its completion. A remastered version of that recording concludes the album, the cover of which is adorned with a detail from Marcelle Seabourne’s painting My Song in October, which gives its name to the piano cycle written in her memory, and its subtitle: “nineteen album leaves caught by the wind”; Marcelle died on 19th October 2020.

The reflective, at times wistful quality of Steps, Volume 8 does rather have the expressive feeling of the composer communing with himself while the shade of his wife hovers benignly looking over his shoulder. After the gentle nature painting of the opening movements, such as Komorebi, an impressionistic tone picture of sunlight seen through the trees in woodland, How beautifully it falls, and At the fall of the leaf, an increasingly autumnal atmosphere becomes apparent, a trend reflected in the movement titles, such as When the rose is dead (number 6), One by one (number 8), The leaves are falling (number 10), As a dead leaf (number 12). The titles and expressive content of these musical tone pictures take inspiration from some of the keenest minds in European literature: Katherine Raine (number 2), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (number 3), Goethe (The leaf, number 5); Shelley, Hesse, Anne Brontë, Rilke, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and others follow along, as if part of a group of mourners paying their respects to the artist. As the cycle progresses, however, the mood becomes undeniably darker, more melancholy, reaching its peak in the final three pieces: The wind whispers in dry leaves, This sprig of heather, and—taking its cue partly from a poem of Ted Hughes—Who’ll toll the bell?. Bleak these may be on the surface and in the music’s inner workings, but there is a measure of comfort mixed in with the grief, as of suffering ended. Emily Dickinson’s poems are among the most frequently set in music, and Seabourne has fashioned several cycles from them. September, Just Septembers has its roots in one of the first Dickinson cycles he composed, in the mid-1980s, and its two versions—the final one, featured here, dating from 2001-2—frame a 12-year break in composition. The nine songs trace a seasonal shift from late Spring in the opening song, They dropped like flakes (‘When suddenly across the June / A wind with fingers goes’), through Midsummer (song 4) to the Winter afternoons of the final song. Its final lines, ‘tis like the Distance on the look of Death’, gains added poignancy in Karen Radcliffe’s pitch-perfect interpretation from beyond the grave. Radcliffe was aware in her final illness of the project to release this recording, which is a fine memorial to her musicianship. Setting sentiment aside, for what is a moving and affecting album, Michael Bell plays throughout with exemplary finesse, whether as accompanist two decades ago, or solo in Steps as recently as February this year. Splendid sound, too.

The seventeenth movement, The wind whispers in dry leaves , from ‘Steps, Vol. 8’, performed by Michael Bell; reproduced here with the composer’s permission

Guy Rickards