> Vaughan Williams House of Life etc CZS5747852 [CH]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The House of Life, Songs of Travel
John IRELAND (1879-1962)

The Land of Lost Content
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)

Down by the Salley Gardens, An Epitaph, Desire in Spring, Black Stitchel
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)

Six Songs from "A Shropshire Lad"
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)

A Prayer to St. Anthony, The Sick Heart, My Own Country, Passing By, Pretty Ring Time
Anthony Rolfe Johnson (tenor), David Willison (piano)
Recorded 1974, Hornsey Town Hall (RVW), 1975, Assembly Hall, Northwood College (others)
EMI CLASSICS CZS5 74785 2 [2 CDs: 55.08, 44.48] Superbudget price


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Took me right back, this one did. Took me back, that is, to the days scarcely in my teens at a Victorian relic of a boarding school buried in the "Garden of England", when we "musically gifted" children were ferried out in a 1952 Bedford to hear the concerts put on by the Musical Society of the nearby town; a Musical Society, as I gradually learned, run by funny old people with unusual names and military titles who all lived in the same street in the same village in houses with no numbers and names like "The Bobbles" and "The Cobbles" and whose Committee meetings amounted to a spot of early morning gassing over the hedge, garden shears in hand: "Know anything about this Amadeus Quartet thing we’ve got booked for next week? Are they any good?" (No, I’m not kidding, this really was said, and in the late 60s when the Amadeus were at the height of their reputation).

Took me back, then, to when a somewhat bewildered little boy started hearing English singers in English songs (most song recitals had a group of them somewhere) and somehow it seemed to me that these singers must be ever such good, virtuous people with their pure enunciation, with their clearest of "l"s in words like "farewell", with their "Bright ees the reeng of words", with their "Let beauty a-week" and with their "blow" and "snow" made to rhyme with "bore" and "snore". And this at a time when the local Vicars were already beginning to try whether a bit of plebeian blokiness might not bring us closer to God.

Sometimes, in their effete, mincing accents, these singers would talk about their songs, and it would seem that strong passions were to be found in some of them, or even a bit of humour, enough to raise a titter from the front row. But when it came to singing them, it all came back to this gentle effusion of melodic non-melody, with plodding accompaniments and oh, such an artistic way with the words. Anthony Rolfe Johnson was not around then, but he seems to have got it at source. Hear him tiptoeing around these fairly miserable settings of poets whose only reaction to the beauties of spring was to gripe all the more about their lost loves and their "lads", hear him pause before his high notes and then ostentatiously "place" them oh, so delicately with a touch of crooning falsetto ("the wan moo-oon" in "Love’s Minstrels"). Stronger moments are rare, but when they come, as in the last line of "Death in Love" I have no option but to call a spade a spade and say it’s a pretty awful noise.

But wait! This also takes me back to one of my first LPs, when English songs and music were a new world to me and I listened over and over again to the very young John Shirley-Quirk’s Saga recording of Vaughan Williams’s "Songs of Travel" with tears pouring from my eyes; it seemed the most beautiful music I had ever heard. Those days are gone, alas; yet a re-hearing of that LP (will it ever be reissued?) showed that it still has the power to grip and to move while Rolfe Johnson succeeds only in being a bore. Some of Shirley-Quirk’s accents are mincing too, and ten years later his rendering of these songs had become more mannered, but here he goes absolutely to the heart of the matter. Rolfe Johnson takes four minutes longer over the cycle. The great difference is that Shirley-Quirk (with Viola Tunnard at the piano) keep everything moving forward as inexorably as the best "Winterreise" interpretations while Rolfe Johnson and Willison stop at every lamp-post, giving a new meaning to the term "cow-pat school" which is often applied to these composers. Hear how they spell out "Youth and Love" and "Bright is the Ring of Words" syllable by syllable, so the music has no sense at all.

I tremble to think what an unbelieving foreigner would make of all this, but the disc is clearly not aimed at international distribution. We get a good note from John Steane (in English only) but no texts (if you fancy trying to assemble the texts from your poetry shelf, be warned that "Love’s Minstrels" is called "Passion and Worship", at least in my edition of Rossetti). Ah, but we do get four pages dedicated to the EMI British Composers series: since a good many of the discs are vocal one suspects they may be equally bereft of texts. "Celebrating the Past, Shaping the Future", they call it.

I firmly believe that British song has a rightful place in the repertoire of recitalists of all nationalities. I’m not sure that the treasures are to be found where we tend to think they are, nor that we always sing them in the best way to bring out their beauty. These CDs only serve to reinforce my view.

Christopher Howell

I've just read the review of the Rolfe Johnson Vaughan Williams etc British Composers twofer CZS 5 74785 2). C. Howell is certainly entitled to his opinion (I've always loved those LPs, which is why I put them out; ah well); so no quibble there. But the briefest phone call would have told him that when he says since a good many of the discs [in the British Composers series] are vocal one suspects they may be equally bereft of texts his suspicions are baseless. The great majority of this series' vocal discs come with sung texts and translations; the Rolfe Johnson twofer doesn't because - as your heading correctly states - it is at super-budget.

Many thanks, and good wishes

Richard Abram EMI


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