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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
A Shropshire Lad - three cycles to poems by A. E. Housman

On Wenlock Edge (1): On Wenlock Edge; From far, from eve and morning; Is my team ploughing?; Oh when I was in love with you; Bredon Hill; Clun.
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1936)
The Western Playland (2): Reveille; Loveliest of Trees; Golden Friends; Twice a week; The aspens; Is my team ploughing?; The far country; March.
Ludlow and Teme (1): When smoke stood up from Ludlow; Far in a western playland; ’Tis time I think, by Wenlock Town; Ludlow Fair; On the idle hill of summer; When I was one and twenty; The Lent Lily.
Adrian Thompson (tenor), (1); Stephen Varcoe (baritone) (2); The Delmé Quartet (1)and (2); Iain Burnside (piano) (1) and (2)
rec. 23-24, 26 October 1989, London. DDD
HYPERION HELIOS H55187 [69'08"]

 

This recording was made in 1989, when English song was undergoing one of its periodic renaissances. Thompson and Varcoe and Martyn Hill were the leading lights of the era. In recent years English song has attracted a wider audience and inspired a new generation of interpreters. Nonetheless the recordings of the ’seventies and ’eighties still remain important. Even today, Ivor Gurney is a composer under-represented in the recording catalogue, despite his significance. Many Gurney songs are available, notably Paul Agnew's ‘Severn Meadows’ collection, also on Hyperion (CDA 67423), but this reissue is the only readily available compilation of his major song cycles.

Vaughan Williams' On Wenlock Edge is justifiably the greatest masterpiece in the canon of English song: it has been performed and recorded so often that a listener is spoilt for choice. Superlative versions abound. Two comparisons suffice. My special favourite is Ian Bostridge's recording of the 1924 orchestral version, conducted by Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic Orchestra (1997) reissued in 2004 by EMI as part of a budget box of all Haitink's Vaughan Williams recordings (it includes all the symphonies). This version, for me, is outstanding because Bostridge's interpretation captures the almost surreal emotion in the verses and lifts them beyond the literal. The full import of Housman's text is revealed as seldom before. One can feel the ghost of the Roman on the modern hillside, the bells on Bredon take on a manic, almost sinister tone, to match the grief of the man bereft. That recording is in a class of its own, and unequalled. A more appropriate comparison would be the recording by John Mark Ainsley and the Nash Ensemble (2000 ) also Hyperion, CDA 67168). This is the chamber version produced in 1913, the score used in the Thompson/Delmé recording under review. Alas, the Ainsley/Nash version is outstanding, far outshining this effort by Thompson/Delmé. Adrian Thompson is a pleasant enough singer, but lacks the interpretive bite that Ainsley and Bostridge bring: his voice is attractive but nothing out of the ordinary. The Delmé Quartet are good, but not quite in the same league of elegance and artistry.

The real value of this reissue lies in the Gurney song cycles. The Western Playland and Ludlow and Teme were republished only in 1982, and deserve to be better known. Both are for voice, piano and chamber quartet. Some of the songs therein have been set far more famously by George Butterworth and Ralph Vaughan Williams: Loveliest of trees for example, whose setting by Butterworth is so beautiful that it would take a setting of genius to displace. Yet Gurney's version, holds its own, garlanded with a solo violin, whose sensuous shimmering line evokes the shining blossom. Where Butterworth stresses the tree "wearing white .... for Eastertide", Gurney emphasises the "white". A minor point perhaps, but Butterworth seems more aware of the impermanence of the blossom, while Gurney glories in its beauty while it lasts. Gurney's Is my team ploughing? is also quite different from the well known Butterworth and Vaughan Williams settings. No conversation with a ghost here - Gurney's deceased ploughman still sings with the vigour he had in life, albeit ever so discordantly. Butterworth's version of The lads in their hundreds has become immortal as a sort of symbolic evocation of the millions killed in the First World War, as Butterworth himself was. Gurney's version again, is seemingly heartier: the third stanza, though, is set quite differently: "I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell". Gurney's On the idle Hill of Summer is, like Butterworth's, quite singular. Gurney subtly emphasizes the "steady drummer, drumming like the noise in dreams" - a detail but a telling one, this "noise in dreams". Gurney's music may sound superficially confident, but it is the confidence of "whistling in a graveyard": grim undertones are there, less obvious than in Butterworth or Vaughan Williams, but there nonetheless. Gurney, being a poet himself, was perhaps more aware of letting words speak, and making the listener think. He didn't need overly explicit musical settings.

Too much comparison with Butterworth and Vaughan Williams does no favours to any composer: Gurney's own voice is distinctive on its own. Gurney's Far Country, set in a minor key with keening strings is a "land of lost content" indeed, whose "blue remembered hills" truly send an "air that kills", a sliver of a verse augmented by restrained but evocative strings. He starts When smoke stood up from Ludlow with an almost oriental air, exploring the pentatonic in a way that Vaughan Williams would have envied. It enhances the mysticism of the dialogue between the blackbird and the ploughman. It is pure coincidence that when the ploughman kills the blackbird, he takes up the bird’s song as his own - a Buddhist concept Gurney or Housman would have been unaware of. The detail is exquisite - between "whistled" and "the tramping" in the second verse, a single phrase on violin evokes birdsong. When the bird is killed, the voice sings "still....." with pregnant silence. A similar sense of ambience pervades The Lent Lily. If scented spring air could be portrayed in sound, this, perhaps, might be what it might sound like. Voice, strings and piano undulate and entwine melodically: the words "Easter day" fade out, like a breeze wafting forth, carried away by swaying strings and restrained low notes on the piano ...

Thompson and Varcoe are good performers who present these songs well and clearly. Songs as evanescent as these need a light touch. Nonetheless, I hope that, from the current generation of singers of English song, there will be new interpretations of these beautiful, expressive songs.

Anne Ozorio



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