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David Kidman of fRoots

reviews Cold Fen by Mary Humphreys & Anahata

Effectively a sequel to their previous CD Fenlandia, this East?Anglian?themed disc from the established, felicitous partnership of Mary and Anahata bears all their usual hallmarks: sprightly playing, earthy and characterful singing, imaginative accompaniments, and a healthy ratio of songs to tune?medleys. The songs are in the main drawn from those collected by Vaughan Williams in Fens villages during 1906 and 1907 (the exception being Young And Single Sailor, which comes from the Lucy Broadwood papers). As Mary has discovered, however, the snag is that in many cases RVW only notated the music, and didn't always manage to return to his source to retrieve the words. She has therefore often had to resort to some creative detective work in order to unearth a suitable set of words from the archives, subsequently then either conjecturally matching that text to the collected tune or using a variant text to reconstruct the song itself (rather as RVW himself would likely have done).

This practice explains the presence on Cold Fen of many very familiar song titles, a cursory glance at which makes the tracklisting seem deceptively mundane, even unadventurous. But be reassured, for Mary's well developed skill in canny adaptation and sensitive reconstruction gives rise to some intriguing settings that make the proverbial fresh coat of paint seem an understatement (even Abroad As I Was Walking, which incorporates a considerable number of well?travelled phrases), while Rosemary Lane makes a particularly fetching finale. In some instances, the 'new' tunes adopted for familiar texts or variants may initially seem a trifle flat, or less immediately memorable, but repeated exposure yields considerable rewards.

Instrumental settings are well?judged and continually interesting, with cello supplanting or augmenting concertina or melodeon to distinctive effect. As for the purely instrumental tracks, these arguably embody an even greater sense of discovery than the songs and certainly prove a wholly accessible diversion for the song specialist whose interests are so well accommodated elsewhere on the disc. Just over half of the tunes come from the recently discovered mid19th?century manuscript book of the obscure William Clarke of Feltwell, Norfolk, and once again the duo's abundantly imaginative approach to scoring, mood and dynamics pays handsome dividends for the listener (Anahata has even added smallpipes to his armoury for the delightfully animated Kempshot Hunt).

Cold Fen gently captivates the listener at every turn, for Mary and Anahata audibly relish the discovery and the communication of these songs and tunes.