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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Songs: It was a lover and lass; The Lawyer; The splendour falls; The water mill; Tired; Silent Noon; Searching for lambs; Nocturne; Joy, Shipmate, Joy; Lord, come away!; Come love, Come Lord; Dirge for Fidele
Five Mystical Songs (1909) [17.23]
On Wenlock Edge (1911) [22.35]
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]


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If you are looking for an accomplished and generous collection of Vaughan Williams' songs you cannot go far wrong with this. The performances are always pleasing and in some cases much more than this. The Rolfe Johnson Wenlock Edge sounds very well indeed though his voice lacks the smooth poignant 'blade' and impeccable breath control of Ian Partridge on the EMI Classics reference recording. His Clun is the best I have ever heard with its sense of sun-soaked tired consummation. I admired Keenlyside's Herbert songs (especially the door he opens on the very British ecstasy of Rise Heart) but really missed the choir and orchestra that goes with Shirley-Quirk's EMI version. This baritone and piano version seems like an outline sketch for the greater work - a reminder of how the expanded version sounds rather than a self-sufficient work.

Of the other solo songs there is a mix of familiar and not so. It was a Lover and Dirge for Fidele (i.e. ‘Fear no more!’) are duets for the two men and are superb though vying with Finzi's settings from the cycle Let Us Garlands Bring. Two of the other songs (The Lawyer and Searching for Lambs) are with the probing solo violin of the Duke's leader, Louisa Fuller. Both are folksy, yielding and humane settings. Searching for lambs is a breathtakingly beautiful setting with the composer well in the idiom he was to adopt for his other Housman cycle 'Along the Field'. The two religious songs preceding the Herbert cycle have John Metcalfe's viola as accompaniment. Come love come Lord is touchingly devotional and those who know their Summertime on Bredon will recognise some of the music. The Four Last Songs are represented by Tired - yet another lovely song in which the words I shall remember firelight on your sleeping face are fixed forever with Vaughan Williams' music. The Splendour falls is a simpler setting than Britten's; more like Gurney. The water mill features the gentle chunter of the mill wheel and a memorably serenading cantilena. Then at the other extreme in Nocturne RVW surprises us with the misty dissonances of his Whitman setting (about as far away as you can get from the Parryan stodge of A Sea Symphony). Here he coasts along the shores of Schoenberg's Hanging Gardens cycle.

This is the best yet in this garlanded series rescued from Collins Classics’ list of the dead. Naxos can preen themselves on having won this line and we can be grateful that a premium quality series now emerges on bargain price Naxos complete with good notes and full texts. This is the most pleasing and emotionally affecting collection yet. It is no fault of the performers but the Somervell songs (8.557113) are lack-lustre gems. The Walton disc (8.557112) is good but Façade in any hands, it must be admitted, palls very quickly. A masterly collection - quiet consummation indeed!

Rob Barnett

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