There’s a passage in Tom Jones, the great comic novel by Henry Fielding, where the title character takes the mild-mannered Partridge to see David Garrick play Hamlet. Partridge is dismissive of Garrick’s performance, complaining that he acts just as anyone would in his (Hamlet’s) situation. The best actor, in his opinion? “The king for my money! He speaks all his words distinctly, half as loud again as the other. Anybody may see he is an actor.”

I might as well reconcile myself to the fact that if I’m going to get through this project, I am going to be arguing Partridge’s position more often than I’d like. And with the recording of A Lover’s Complaint, I am in as good a position as I’m likely to find. A Lover’s Complaint is the tale of a woman who is seduced and abandoned by a young man of rather blatant unreliability. Though distraught, she confesses she’d do it all over again.

William Squire and Joan Hart perform the work with an artificiality so pure and precise that Fielding’s irony springs immediately to mind. And my response is that they are executing with sterling faithfulness the bidding of the text. Filled with archaic and ornate language, this period piece is lovely to listen to, but very much as the liner notes point out “a period piece”. And so it is performed, in the stylized manner of a different age, aware of its polish and prettiness and unembarrassed. That’s right – deliver it as written and own it.

So I listen unresisting to the chanting, the lulling of the attenuated vowels, the swoops and crescendos of calculated emotional display, and let an old tune work its charm on its own terms. And satisfying it is.

On the same disk, The Phoenix and the Turtle, readers unidentified, makes less of an impact. And I’m sorry for it, because P&T is one of my favorite poems. I actually admire and enjoy the sheer impenetrability of the symbolic language and find the attempts of scholars over the centuries to pluck out the heart of its mystery to be futile and even misguided. There’s a kind of pleasure to be taken in not getting it, as odd as that sounds. Unfortunately, the Argo readers do not take advantage of the poem’s dramatic possibilities – a sly, surreal, mysticism hinting at unknowable secrets, perhaps. Or even simply the sense of juicy melodrama provided by Donald Wolfit on the “competing” Caedmon recording from roughly the same period. The delivery is uneven, even awkward, especially from reader 3. I get the feeling, for once, that they didn’t take it seriously enough.

A Lover’s Complaint, read by William Squire and Joan Hart, and The Phoenix and the Turtle, read by John Barton(?), George Rylands(?) and an unkown third reader (?).


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