Sunday, 24 January 2010

Poetic Price and Tolkien Cover Versions

A couple of interesting literary LPs were recently donated and have now gone up for sale on the Oxfam online shop. The 1967 LP Poems and Songs of Middle Earth was released by Caedmon records, who specialised in audio readings of a literary stripe. This features Tolkien himself reading from The Adventures of Tom Bombadil along with a short burst of Elvish in A Elbereth Gilthoniel. The second side is taken up by Donald Swann (yes, half of the Flanders and Swann musical humourist duo) playing his arrangements of Tolkien song lyrics from Lord of the Rings. These are sung by William Elvin in a classical tenor, and the music has the feel of the folk songs arrangements by composers such as Vaughan Willliams and Holst. It’s like a polite, tamed chamber music distillation of the spirit of the music (as you might imagine it). Pleasant enough, but hardly what you’d imagine them swinging their tankards along to down at the Prancing Pony. Any road, I see that someone has immediately snapped this one up, and a bargain at the price, I might add.

The cover, by Pauline Baynes, is lovely, and is the same illustration used for the cover of the paperback omnibus edition of The Lord of the Rings which I first picked up at a school jumble sale at the age of about 10, and which went on to be, for me as for so many others, a formative reading experience. It’s still my favourite of all the many Tolkien covers. The woodland surround through which the broad sweep of hills, mountains and plains can be seen invites the reader into this imaginary world and captures the excitement of a new landscape to be travelled through and discovered, which is really the key to the book’s phenomenal success. The figures lurking and capering in the dark earth of the borders recall the capricious marginalia of medieval illuminations. Baynes, who died in 2008, was an artist who became good friends with Tolkien after she provided the illustrations for Farmer Giles of Ham, and through his recommendation also went on to illustrate his friend and fellow ‘Inkling’ CS Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was Baynes who created the maps for The Lord of the Rings, an innovation which went on to become something of a fantasy novel cliché. She illustrated many Puffin books, including Richard Adams’ Watership Down, another book and cover instantly familiar from childhood. You can find her obituary from the Telegraph here.

The other record is another Caedmon recording from the 60s, this time Vincent Price’s readings of the poetry of Shelley (here it is). Price’s velvet tones wrap themselves around the romantic verses wonderfully. There were many recordings of him reading Poe or other works connected to the horror genre, but here you feel he is in his element. This is the Price who cherished fine art and conjured gourmet delights which were in the themselves transitory works of art. Price may have accepted his ghettoisation within the walls of the horror genre with good grace, but (as some of his performances might suggest) his heart was elsewhere. It took a director of stubborn single-mindedness to jolt him out of his default mode of seductively knowing drollery, which was fine if the material was right. Hence the many apocryphal tales of greater or lesser accuracy about the abrasive relationship which he had with Michael Reeves on the set of Witchfinder General. Here, he delivers the high-flown romanticism of Shelley’s verse in a relatively low-key pitch, resisting the temptation to fall into the customary ‘poetic’ delivery which can sound so ridiculous to the modern ear. A lesser reader would certainly have delivered the famous ‘look on my works ye mighty and despair’ line from Ozymandias with a thunderous luvvie rumble, but not Vincent. He judges the moments to up the rhetorical ante, and as a result his readings have a fine balance and flow which make them a genuine pleasure to listen to. You can hear more of Price's inimitable (though many have tried) voice here, including his readings of two Keats poems, which should give you a flavour of what the Shelley LP sounds like. Now I really must try out some of his recipes. Although perhaps not the pie which he served up to Robert Morley in Theatre of Blood.

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