> Ralph Vaughan Williams - Igor Gurney [JQ]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
On Wenlock Edge*
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
The Western Playland**
Ludlow and Teme*
* Adrian Thompson (tenor); ** Stephen Varcoe (baritone)
Iain Burnside (piano); The Delmé String Quartet
Rec 23, 24, 26 October 1989
HYPERION CDA66385 [69.08]


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This CD usefully gathers together three significant song cycles which set poems from the collection, A Shropshire Lad by A. E. Housman (1859-1936). All are written for accompaniment by a piano quintet.

The Vaughan Williams cycle is much the best known. It dates from 1909 and contains six songs. Gurneys Ludlow and Teme was probably composed between 1919 and 1920 and comprises seven songs. His other cycle, The Western Playland, which similarly contains seven songs, was written in 1920 and 1921 but two of its songs (Loveliest of trees and Is my team ploughing?) date from 1908 though both were revised in 1920. All this information, and much more, is contained in the perceptive and interesting notes by the composer and biographer of Gurney, Michael Hurd. Interestingly, in this collection of 20 songs only one poem (Is my team ploughing?) is set by both composers.

Ludlow and Teme is sung by Adrian Thompson. Gurneys vocal lines range widely and often lie demandingly high. Thompson sings responsively and with feeling (the second song, Far in a western brookland, is especially fine with very atmospheric accompaniment too) but to my ears his top register does not seem sufficiently open and free. This is less noticeable when he is singing softly. Unfortunately, I dont find the sound of his voice, as here recorded, particularly appealing. However, this is very much a matter of personal taste and other listeners may respond more positively. I hope so, for these are very fine, eloquent songs, not otherwise available on CD so far as I know.

The Western Playland is entrusted to Stephen Varcoe. Sensibly, Hyperion place this cycle between the two for tenor. Like Thompson, Varcoe is sensitive both to text and music but I find his voice falls much more gratefully on the ear and it is evenly produced throughout its full range. Varcoes is not a particularly big voice but its light, easy lyricism is ideally suited to music such as this. His account of Loveliest of trees is an excellent example of his unaffected and understanding approach and I found the simple eloquence with which he delivers The far country very moving. This is a fine performance of this cycle and Iain Burnside and the Delmé Quartet accompany sensitively, as they do throughout the recital. As with the companion Gurney cycle, I dont think there is an alternative recording.

The same is not true of On Wenlock Edge where Adrian Thompson is up against the formidable competition of Ian Partridges 1970 recording with The Music Group of London (EMI). As Michael Hurd points out in his notes, Vaughan Williams settings are much more dramatic than are those of Gurney. I think that the additional scope that this gives to the singer works in Thompsons favour for I find his performance of On Wenlock Edge more pleasing than his Gurney (or perhaps he was just in better voice on the day the RVW was set down.) In fact, comparisons between Thompsons recording and the earlier Partridge version suggest that honours are fairly even. On one point, however, I much prefer Partridge. In the fifth song, Bredon Hill, Thompson and his colleagues adopt what seems to me to be an excessively slow tempo for the fifth and sixth stanzas (which describe the death of the girl). Presumably this is done to achieve maximum atmosphere but in fact the effect comes perilously close to stasis and is the main reason why Thompson takes a full minute longer than Partridges 725" for this song a significant difference. Partridge demonstrates that a more natural tempo can be just as effective, in fact more effective. On balance Partridges would still be my preferred recording of this lovely cycle.

I listened to the two Gurney cycles first. The subsequent comparison with the much older EMI recording of On Wenlock Edge confirmed some uneasiness which I had felt about the balance of the Hyperion disc. EMI recorded the piano quartet quite a bit more closely than did Hyperion and to my ears the EMI recording sounds more satisfactory. Throughout the Hyperion disc the lower strings in particular sound somewhat reticent and some detail is lost. Perhaps the Hyperion balance was due to a concern that the accompaniment might overwhelm the singer? If so, I suspect the engineers may have been a bit too cautious.

The documentation is up to Hyperions usual high standards. There is one slight blemish. Vaughan Williams did not set the third and fourth stanzas of Is my team ploughing? but Gurney did (in The Western Playland). Unfortunately, in the booklet the same, abridged text is printed twice.

Though I have one or two reservations about this issue it is nonetheless a very welcome release, particularly for the Gurney cycles, and all lovers of English song will want to hear it.

John Quinn

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