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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Five Mystical Songs (1909) [17.23]
On Wenlock Edge (1911) [22.35]
Songs: It was a lover and lass; The Lawyer (with Louisa Fuller, Violin); The splendour falls; The water mill; Tired; Silent Noon; Searching for lambs (with Louisa Fuller, Violin); Nocturne; Joy, Shipmate, Joy; Lord, come away! (with John Metcalf, Viola); Come love, Come Lord (with John Metcalf, Viola); Dirge for Fidele
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (ten)
Simon Keenlyside (bar)
Duke Quartet
Graham Johnson (piano)
rec. 9-11 July 1996, Rosslyn Hill Chapel. London. DDD
NAXOS 8.557114 [76.55]


Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs is, I imagine more familiar in its choral and orchestral dress. In that form the fervour of such lines as: "Rise, heart: thy Lord is risen…", from the opening song, Easter; and "Let all the world in every corner sing…", from the concluding Antiphon, are arguably best communicated. But conversely, in this version for baritone and piano, the quieter, more intimate central numbers, especially Love bade me welcome and The Call, the quiet, the piety, affectingly communicated by Simon Keenlyside, seem to be that much more convincing. The other major cycle on this album, On Wenlock Edge, presented in its version with string quartet, is more familiar than in its orchestral dress. The Duke Quartet certainly convey wintry chill on Wenlock Edge - and summer heat haze on Bredon Hill before tragic tolling bells (beautifully, plangently communicated by Graham Johnson) turn this wonderful song towards winter tragedy. Anthony Rolfe Johnson colours his voice most expressively in all six numbers, full of awe and wonder and resignation in From far, from eve and morning; plaintive as the ghostly enquirer (with wonderful spectral accompaniment) and confident and (falsely) comforting as the surviving usurper in Is my team ploughing – a tour de force this performance! I have to say though that RVW’s orchestral version bestows that much more colour and impact to this great cycle.

The concert begins and ends with both voices featured in Shakespearean settings, coyly and floridly entwined in the opening It was a Lover and his Lass and ends with the consolatory, lullaby-like Dirge for Fidele, "Fear no more the heat o’ the sun…"

In between there are a further ten songs. The Lawyer, sardonically witty, has Keenlyside as a gallant bent on tempting a maiden with the luxury of City living against devilish fiddle trills so that we are left in no doubt about his motives. It has to be said that RVW’s setting of Tennyson’s The splendour falls is no match against that of Delius who really sets those echoes flying. It is also interesting to compare RVW’s sturdy setting of Walt Whitman’s Joy, Shipmate, Joy with the more mystical, affecting Delius version within his Songs of Farewell. The gently evocative The Watermill is deservedly one of RVW’s most popular songs. The lovely nostalgic Tired, "I shall remember firelight on your sleeping face" is complemented by the setting of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s serene pastoral idyll ‘Silent Noon’ raptly spun by Keenlyside, "…When twofold silence was the song of love." Echoes of The Lark Ascending are heard in the violin’s lines of Searching for Lambs suggesting a heavenly union - "…We’ll join our hands in wedded bands…" The viola of John Metcalf joins with Graham Johnson to accompany the fervent prayers of Anthony Rolfe Johnson in Lord! Come away, to scourge the world of evil. In the more languid Come Love, come Lord, with its extended instrumental writing, he utters a more supplicant plea.

Radiant performances of some of Vaughan Williams best-loved songs. Naxos are to be congratulated for making this important Collins Classics collection available again.

Ian Lace


William WALTON 8.557112
Arthur SOMERVELL 8.557113
Peter WARLOCK 8.557115

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