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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Songs of Travel (1904) [24:09]
The House of Life (1903) [30:29]
Linden Lea (1908) [2:44]
Four poems by Fredegond Shove (1924) [14:03]
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Ian Burnside (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk 27-29 August 2004. DDD
NAXOS 8.557643 [67:07]

This recording is so good that I've no hesitation in recommending it as a "best buy" despite the many others on the market. Roderick Williams is the Ralph Vaughan Williams specialist par excellence. He probably sings more Vaughan Williams than anyone else. Most of his career has been in English song, so his understanding is instinctive. He sings "from within", as they say, with an intuitive appreciation of what makes the music work.

The Songs of Travel are recorded much more frequently than their inherent merit might suggest. Still redolent of the closed atmosphere of Victorian parlour songs, of Parry and of Stanford, they aren't quite in the same league as the composer's later works. Their charm, therefore, depends greatly on interpretation. Technically they are not a great challenge. Singers like Terfel and Luxon, with big, deep voices capture their robust muscularity. Williams, however, has a lieder singer's knack of inflecting nuance so subtly that it seems effortless. "Let beauty awake, for beauty's sake" is convincing because it's sung with exquisite beauty. Again and again, Williams’ agile voice breathes warmth and colour. He shapes each word, each phrase, each line with such grace that the songs seem transformed into great art. By the Roadside Fire may have a silly text, and Vaughan Williams may still be finding his voice, but Williams makes it sound superb. Where the composer is on form, as in the gentle, nebulous Youth and Love, the total effect is breathtaking. Vaughan Williams' capacity for really subtle, modern writing becomes clear.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's poems are more of a challenge than the solid certainty of R.L. Stevenson, and Vaughan Williams’ settings are rather more sophisticated. Everyone knows and loves Silent Noon, with its understated sensuality. "'Tis visible silence, still as the hourglass..." sings Williams, shaping words like "dragonfly hangs ... like a blue thread loosened from the sky" with the gentlest breath. It truly feels like something diaphanous floating hazily in the air. Then he captures the rapturous, yet restrained passion of the final verse, ending with a magnificently controlled "song" ( as in "'twas the song of love"). This particular note stands too high, and lasts too long for many baritones, who have to moderate its pitch. Williams sings it as it should be, to spectacular effect. When the repeat occurs, the memory of this soaring note remains, even though the reprise is taken at a more comfortable lower register. It is magic, like a hovering reminder of the tenuous beauty of images like the dragonfly, fingertips in the grass and "this close-companioned inarticulate hour". Even Felicity Lott, whose pure, clean soprano manages the crescendo easily, cannot quite achieve the same impact that Williams’ baritone does. There are so many exquisite moments on this recording, that I cannot begin to quote them all: this Silent Noon is so good it is reason alone to purchase this disc. Nonetheless, this is perhaps the finest version of House of Life I have heard. Williams and Burnside shape it well – Love's Last Gift bringing forth particularly expressive playing from Burnside. It is far more convincing as a coherent song cycle than Songs of Travel, which the notes describe, curiously as a "kind of English Winterreise".

Even more famous than Silent Noon is Linden Lea. Its appeal, however is its sheer, straightforward simplicity. Williams wisely does not need to inflect it with too much detail. It's nice and uncomplicated, and sings itself, so to speak. He puts his efforts towards the four Fredegond Shove songs, first performed some twenty years after the two cycles. Shove was a well known poet, and friend of the composer, but frankly there are many infelicitous constructions in this verse. Vaughan Williams nonetheless turns them into atmospheric art pieces. Motion and Stillness is exactly as it sounds, a study by the composer of tomes and semi-tones, shifting tempi and silences. Williams makes this exquisite miniature shimmer by stretching the long, unbroken melodic lines, varying it with subtle changes in vocal shading. This is no easy feat, and requires performers of genuine sensitivity to the changes in the music. The virtuoso piece here is The New Ghost. The poem is a ludicrous tale of a soul rising from a grave to kiss God. Fortunately, the composer focuses on creating a lament in an amorphous minor key. Accompanied only by the sparest monochrome on piano, Williams draws out the plaintive chant, with minimal but deft shading, curving his inflections like the movement of the ghost gently ascending to heaven. In lesser hands, this song can fall flat. That it convinces here is a tribute to Williams and Burnside.

I could quote example after example, in nearly every song, for there are so many wonderful moments on this disc. But it would be pointless. This is such a beautiful recording that it should be a must in any collection of Vaughan Williams or English songs. Despite formidable competition it is easily "best in class". Get it.

Anne Ozorio



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