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CD: Crotchet
Download: Classicsonline


Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
On Wenlock Edge for tenor, piano and string quartet* (1906/09) [21:51]
Piano Quintet (1903/05) [29:22]
Romance and Pastorale: two pieces for violin and piano (pre-1914) [8:36]
Mark Padmore* (tenor); Schubert Ensemble
rec. Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, 25-27 September 2007. DDD
English texts with French and German translations
CHANDOS CHAN10465 [60:17]


Experience Classicsonline

This disc is a welcome reminder of two fine concerts that I attended at this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival. Towards the start of the festival I reviewed a concert in which the Schubert Ensemble performed On Wenlock Edge. On that occasion their splendid partner was tenor James Gilchrist. Right at the end of the festival I was fortunate to be present to review a marvellous account of Schubert’s Winterreise by Mark Padmore.

Before dealing with On Wenlock Edge there is some much more rare music on the disc. The Piano Quintet was recorded for the first time as part of a superb two-disc set of RVW’s early chamber music (Hyperion), which was warmly welcomed by Rob Barnett when he reviewed it in 2002. Rob commented that ”the music is cast in a mould rather similar to Howells' piano quartet of some ten years later, exultant and surging with romantic power.” He also drew attention to the “Parryesque” quality of the music. I agree with his verdict completely. The work is scored for piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass, the same forces as Schubert specified for the ‘Trout’ Quintet. The scoring is quite bass-heavy and the performers need to balance each other skilfully to avoid heaviness. The members of the Schubert Ensemble achieve the appropriate richness without making the music sound tubby.

The first movement is a powerful, passionate utterance, though there are some reflective oases along the way. The performance is spirited and very committed and I liked it a lot. The Nash Ensemble account is no less involving and I wouldn’t really care to choose between them. The Hyperion recording for the Nash Ensemble is balanced a touch closer and is cut at a slightly higher level, I suspect. Playing them one after the other at exactly the same volume settings I found the Hyperion recording almost too potent at times.

In his notes for the Chandos disc Michael Kennedy draws attention to some similarities between the material of the second movement and RVW’s song, Silent Noon, which also dates from 1903. It’s a lyrical and ruminative movement and it’s music that, in lesser hands, could invite wallowing. Happily, the Schubert Ensemble give full value to the reflective side of the piece but they play it with purpose also, as do the Nash Ensemble. The finale consists of a theme and five variations. The enunciation of the theme at the outset by violin and double bass in unison imparts an almost ghostly feeling to the music The movement is full of pleasing touches and RVW clearly retained an affection for it because late in life he returned to it, using an expanded version of the theme for the finale, also a set of variations, of his 1954 Violin Sonata.

The Quintet is a most enjoyable work even if, in the context of his overall output, it’s not great Vaughan Williams. First performed in 1905, a performance is known to have taken place in 1918 but it was one of a number of early works that the composer withdrew after his return from war service and it was not heard again until it was revived in 1999 with the consent of Ursula Vaughan Williams. In agreeing to further performances Mrs Vaughan Williams did us a great service, as she did in permitting a recording and then performances of the original version of the ‘London’ Symphony, for hearing this neglected music enhances our appreciation and understanding of RVW’s music. As I said, the Quintet is not, perhaps, great Vaughan Williams but it’s far too good for the score to moulder in a drawer for ever.

The aforementioned Hyperion chamber music set also included the Romance and Pastorale and once again it’s hard to better Rob Barnett’s description of these two miniatures as “warm and subtle; flowing with the flavours and atmosphere of summer streams and warm byres - only a shade away from The Lark Ascending.” Indeed, Michael Kennedy says that the Romance “at times suggests a study for The Lark Ascending.” Simon Blendis plays it quite beautifully and he’s partnered most sensitively by pianist William Howard. They’re no less successful in the Pastorale, which is fluent and gently rhapsodic in their hands.

For many collectors the chief appeal of this disc will lie in the inclusion of On Wenlock Edge. The more I hear this Housman cycle the more I admire and love it. It’s sad to think that Housman disliked musical settings of his poems, for at their best – and On Wenlock Edge is surely one of the very best – musical settings of his poems refresh and renew the words, adding another dimension while respecting the originals.

We have had several fine recordings of On Wenlock Edge over the years. For a long time Ian Partridge’s excellent performance with The Music Group of London (EMI, 1970) held sway and I still rate it very highly indeed. Recently, however, its hegemony has been challenged by a superb account from James Gilchrist with Anna Tilbrook (piano) and The Fitzwilliam String Quartet (Linn Records, recorded in 2006). In auditioning these three versions side by side it’s apparent that all three singers bring special qualities and insights to the songs. Furthermore, each benefits from perceptive and imaginative accompaniments from their respective groups of instrumentalists. All three versions are unfailingly musical.

In the storm-tossed ‘On Wenlock Edge’ there’s strength and a certain degree of wildness in Mark Padmore’s singing. Gilchrist’s account is characterised by what I’d term anxious passion. Setting the tone for what’s to follow in his reading, Partridge is more mellifluous and he displays a little less obvious energy. Of the three it’s he who spins the most legato line.

At the start of ‘From far, from eve and morning’ Partridge is withdrawn and delicate. I love the haunted plangency in his voice – something we hear quite often from him in this cycle. Gilchrist is sweet and gentle at first but the little bit of speeding up at “take my hand, quick” is a fine touch – he does that better than his rivals. Padmore is placed a little further away from the microphone than Gilchrist, it seems. He’s more deliberate at the start than are his colleagues – in fact he takes 0:28 longer over this song, whereas the other both take 2:02 (this is the only significant difference of timing between any of the singers throughout the cycle.) Padmore’s beautifully placed mezza voce is a delight to hear.

‘Is my team ploughing?’ is a huge vocal and interpretative challenge. Padmore is good at distinguishing between the two voices in the poem. He’s very dramatic in the verses allotted to the survivor. In the penultimate verse there’s a real feeling of desperation in his singing. In the last verse his voice almost cracks on the second of the two cries of “yes, lad.” I don’t know if this happens by accident or design but it’s mightily effective and very appropriate. Gilchrist, who also portrays the two separate voices very well, is remote and ghostly at the start. In the penultimate stanza he’s anguished and in the last verse he, perhaps better than anyone else, suggests the guilt felt by the survivor, not least in his impassioned cry “I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart. Never ask me whose.” Partridge adopts a dead tone at the start and his vocal control is magnificent. Beside the other two he’s less overtly dramatic in the concluding verses but I still find him completely convincing.

‘Oh when I was in love with you’ finds Partridge innocent and relatively carefree. In this short song, which is almost an intermezzo, there’s really little to choose between the singers. Padmore is fractionally less jaunty than his peers in the second verse. He makes just a little bit more of the music by slowing the tempo a little and by so doing hints, rightly, I think, at darker undercurrents.

‘Bredon Hill’ is the finest song of all and hugely demanding of the singer – and, indeed, of all the performers. In this song Partridge, though he sings excellently, doesn’t fine down his voice in the opening stanzas in the way that his rivals do. His approach is less overtly dramatic, rather he’s innocent and more direct. His singing gives great pleasure – the soft high note on the word “church” at the end of verse four ravishes the ear. His tempo for the first four stanzas is a fraction quicker that either Gilchrist or Padmore. As a result, his slowing for verse five is more marked but this is effective and he achieves an impassioned climax on “Oh, noisy bells, be dumb.” Padmore’s tone is light and easy at the start of the song. He and his partners achieve a glacial calm in verse five; here the reading is full of foreboding and they maintain and build the hushed suspense throughout verse six. This treatment makes Padmore’s great cry at “Oh, noisy bells” absolutely riveting. But marvellous though Padmore is I think Gilchrist outdoes him. He’s even more affecting in his use of mezza voce early on then becomes a little more outgoing in verse three, while maintaining the lightness of voice. This performance is the most chilling of the three in verse five. The following verse is doom laden and Gilchrist is impassioned at “Oh, noisy bells.” By a short head I find the Gilchrist performance to be the most compelling among these three fine accounts.

After this, ‘Clun’ comes as something of a relaxation. I like very much the easy delivery of Partridge. In particular, he ends the song beautifully and The Music Group of London play the postlude marvellously. Gilchrist has a wonderfully light touch too – his voice is ideally suited to this song – and the final stanza and the postlude are rapt. Padmore too is excellent. There’s a touch more strength in his voice and he is perfectly poised at the end.

All these three versions are excellent in their different ways. Though there are points where I find one singer has the edge the differences are marginal. Mark Padmore excels in this cycle and is superbly supported by The Schubert Ensemble.

The production values of this Chandos release are very high. The recorded sound is excellent. There are first-rate notes by the doyen of writers on Vaughan Williams, Michael Kennedy. And there are some small but praiseworthy refinements. In providing the texts for On Wenlock Edge Chandos include, set within brackets, the two verses of ’Is my team ploughing’ and the refrain in ‘Clun’ that RVW did not set. They’re the only company in my experience to do this. They also deserve a round of applause for leaving a gap of eighteen seconds between the end of On Wenlock Edge and the start of the Quintet and there’s another break of twenty-two seconds between the end of the Quintet and the opening of the Romance. This sounds a small point but it shows great consideration and thoughtfulness. Other companies, please copy.

Listening to this fine new release and revisiting the comparative versions of On Wenlock Edge – sheer indulgence! – I’m struck by the excellence of all of them. I’m not going to declare any one performance a winner, as that would be invidious and I don’t think it’s a cop out not to do so. However, choice may be dictated by the couplings. The Nash Ensemble’s versions of the two chamber works come in a two-disc set and I’m not aware of any other single-disc version of the Quintet apart from this new Chandos release. Both the rival versions of On Wenlock Edge are coupled with other songs. Partridge’s recording comes with the Ten Blake Songs and Warlock’s The Curlew. Gilchrist also offers The Curlew, Gurney’s fine Ludlow and Teme cycle and a rare chance to hear Elegiac Sonnet by Bliss. Personally I’d buy the lot – indeed, I already have! However, I hope my comments above make it clear that this new Chandos disc is an outstanding release and admirers of Vaughan Williams can invest with complete confidence.

John Quinn


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