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Love’s Voice
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
On Wenlock Edge (1917-18) [2:56]
Bread and cherries (1921) [0:53]
Down by the Salley Gardens (1910) [2:43]
Ha'nacker Mill (1921) [2:09]
Snow (1921) [2:39]
Hawk and Buckle (1921) [1:10]
John IRELAND (1879-1962)
Friendship in misfortune [1:48]
The Three Ravens [3:30]
The trellis [3:24]
The Land of Lost Content (1920-21) [11:34]
Ian VENABLES (b.1955)
Love's Voice – a song cycle Op.22 (1995) [15:43]
Vitae summa brevis Op.3 No.3 [3:32]
Flying Crooked Op.28 No.1 [1:08]
At midnight Op.28 No.2 [4:08]
The hippo Op.33 No.6 [1:40]
Gerald FINZI (1901-1956)
Oh Fair to See Op.13b [17:31]
Nathan Vale (tenor)
Paul Plummer (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, February 2006
SOMMCD 063 [76:39]


Somm’s dedication to young artists – both instrumental and vocal – is one of the most laudable things. They have a knack of selecting young but highly promising artists, some already in the early flourishes of a career, and giving them a platform on disc. This one is no exception. Nathan Vale has won the London Handel Singing Competition very recently; more pertinently as far as this disc is concerned he won the 2005 AESS English Song Competition. And Paul Plummer is immersed in the accompanist’s art, having studied with Johnson, Martineau and Ball – and having performed widely.

They perform works by a quartet of composers of whom one, Ian Venables, is very much our contemporary but whose works are certainly consonant with those of, say, Finzi; he’s also very well known as an active supporter of Gurney’s memory in the society devoted to the composer’s name. Vale’s voice is of a rather high, lyric tenor. It has a youthful and vibrant ring to it but is occasionally prone to strain as it goes up and then subject to forcing to over compensate – as in the more treacherous moments of Gurney’s Down by the Salley Gardens. Another quirk is that of starting a note and then vibrating a lot – which might prove off-putting to some. His Gurney singing is generally fine but loses points in the detail. His kind of voice proves less sensitive to subtle inflections of colour than more practised artists. He does little with “silence” and “child” in Snow for instance – which is not a plea for interventionist melodrama but simply for increased colour deftly to broaden the narrative meaning of phrases.

His Finzi shows similar virtues but also as yet relative limitations. Oh Fair to see was compiled from songs written many years apart and needs a strong hand. Vale and Plummer tend generously to indulge rubati here. They bring out the languor of As I Lay in The Early Sun and bring a youthful, almost adolescent folie to Finzi’s setting of Gurney’s Only The Wanderer. Ian Partridge and Clifford Benson on Hyperion were altogether more reflective, the older man looking back rather than the young man looking forward. Since We Loved is charming, up to a point, with Vale and Plummer; but so much richer, more complex and touching with Partridge and Benson.

I suppose Pears is the singer most associated with John Ireland’s The Land of Lost Content though John Mitchinson and Alan Rowlands made a stirring recording of it for Lyrita. The high Pears tenor finds a reflection of sorts in Vale. Ireland wrote the cycle for Gervase Elwes, who died before he could premiere it. I’ve always supposed the allusion to Is My Team Ploughing in the first of the cycle, The Lent Lily, is a tribute to the man who premiered Vaughan Williams’s own cycle – and who first recorded it. Elwes’s voice is very different to Vale’s and indeed most other tenors – it had a baritonal extension and though capable of great feeling was not especially beautiful. Vale tends to lack ultimate vibrance at the top of his register and compared with Mitchinson’s positively lascivious singing of Ladslove is inclined to be chorister-chaste. Mitchinson takes a muscular and tough view of the cycle, searching downwards slightly to Elwes’s depths, whereas Vale keeps things strictly clean. If Mitchinson brings out the seething sensuality of the cycle Vale puts the stopper right back in – which again some might prefer.

Ian Venables studied with Arnell and then with Joubert amongst others. His chamber music is well known but so are his songs and we have a selection of them here. Love’s Voice is composed to the words of John Addington Symonds, whose poetic beloved is not given a personal pronoun. A Venetian setting, rich on canal rhythm, mysterious chords mirroring the appearance of the beloved, and traditional means, this is interpreted by Vale with a certain disembodied cool. Elsewhere The Hippo, to words by Theodore Roethke, might invite a comic setting; not for Venables who vests it with Finzi-like lines; strangely serious.  

The recording in Potton Hall is first class and there are good notes and full texts. Plummer is a secure and intelligent accompanist; Vale is at the start of his career and his singing shows promise – time will tell as to whether he can colour and inflect the better to convey narrative threads and can bring a greater compass to the voice as well. Finally you should certainly note that Gurney's On Wenlock Edge, and Venables' The Hippo and Vitae summa brevis are all premiere recordings.

Jonathan Woolf



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