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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Bushes and Briars [2:56]
Loch Lomond [3:42]
John Dory [2:13]
Greensleeves [3:19]
Ward, the Pirate [2:39]
Ca’ the Yowes [5:12]
The Unquiet Grave [4:45]
The Seeds of Love [2:37]
Early in the Spring [1:51]
The Turtle Dove [3:22]
An Acre of Land [1:22]
Five English Folk Songs [14:26]
Gustav HOLST (1874-1934)*
The Homecoming [6:02]
Hymn to Manas [3:47]
The Fields of Sorrow [1:02]
David’s Lament for Jonathan [1:20]
Truth of All Truth [3:56]
Six Choral Folk Songs, H136 (excerpts) [13:43]
London Madrigal Singers/Christopher Bishop
*Baccholian Singers of London
rec. Kingsway Hall, London, 19-21 November 1969, *Abbey Road Studio No. 1, London, 16-18 September 1974
EMI CLASSICS 2161552 [78:23]

 

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A favorite long-playing record appears on compact disc, expanded with extras.
 

No composer ever had his finger more on the pulse of English folk music than the great Ralph Vaughan Williams. His arrangements of folk songs for unaccompanied chorus are not to be missed. Some are well-known, others were gathered in countryside expeditions by researchers, including RVW himself, who collected the first song here, “Bushes and Briars,” from Charles Pottipher in Essex in 1903. 

RVW had an uncanny ability to identify what was haunting and powerful in these old tunes and intensify that in his arrangements for vocal ensembles. Thus, however easily my jaded ear might shrug off the well-worn melody to “Loch Lomond,” put RVW’s harmonization in front of me and I’m reduced to jelly by the third verse. Not only are the composer’s harmonies potent, he extracts dominant melodic motifs and builds introductions, accompaniments and codas out of them. For instance, the aforementioned “Bushes and Briars” is a fine, though fairly standard lost love ballad. Yet RVW conjures the ghosts out of it in his forlorn arrangement, with displaced accents and archaic parallel fifths.

“Greensleeves” fascinated RVW, leading to an orchestral fantasia that is very famous. His vocal arrangement, however, is even better. Though the orchestral piece contains similar gestures, here the emphasis is on the romantic loss, kept flexibly flowing in Christopher Bishop’s direction. “The Unquiet Grave” is a wrenching tale of love pushed to disturbing ends, with RVW’s arrangement for female voices harmonically illustrating the song’s unearthly tale. “John Dory” becomes an intricate vocal scherzo, scampering in mischievous counterpoint. And so it continues for 18 songs, including the “Five English Folk Songs” set, which dates from 1913 and boasts even more intricate arrangements. 

The London Madrigal Singers were evidently an expert group, including the great Ian Partridge on some of the tenor solos - Yes, Mr. Bostridge was not the first great tenor named Ian to hail from the British Isles! The singing is throughout both balanced and nuanced, led with both crispness and flexibility by Bishop. The recording from Kingsway Hall is simply lovely, restored here beautifully, improving the balance between high and low voices when compared to the original American release on LP, which was on the bargain label Seraphim with the songs curiously in a different order. Surprisingly, despite my familiarity with the Seraphim release, I was able to recognize the superiority of the current ordering, which is arranged with contrast in mind, whereas the LP seems to have been rearranged with the most familiar titles to the beginnings of each side. Astonishingly, these works aren’t recorded all that frequently, so there isn’t much competition for this release, which every Vaughan Williams fan should hear. 

The by no means negligible bonus on this reissue is a half-hour’s worth of part songs by Gustav Holst for male voices, including both folksong arrangements and original works, from a 1974 recording by the Baccholian Singers of London, a group again including Ian Partridge, as well as other familiar names such as Rogers Covey-Crump and John Huw Davies. Original pieces include the comical “The Homecoming,” setting a text — alas, not included here — by Thomas Hardy, and the “Hymn to Manas” from the fourth group of Choral Hymns from the Rig Veda. Particularly unsettling is the brief but potent “David’s Lament for Jonathan,” a canon which sinks lower and lower as it goes. Five of the Six Choral Folk Songs, H136, are included, giving us a glimpse at Holst’s more pedagogical approach to setting folksongs. 

The sound of the Holst selections, from EMI’s Abbey Road Studio No. 1 is not as limpid and clear as the sound from Kingsway, but the space is effectively used, with the voices closer to the microphones, but with plenty of resonance allowed to resound in the background.

The only complaint I could possibly make about this essential collection is the lack of texts. If EMI’s budget strategy were one of maximum efficiency, I’d shut up, but the current booklet contains one blank page, a mini catalogue of other titles in the “British Composers” series, including a full title page and mostly blank back page, and full-page pictures of the two composers. Assuming that most listeners would be able to look up pictures of the composer/arrangers on Wikipedia; couldn’t those seven wasted pages have been used instead for the texts? Even for English speakers, some of the folk songs here have hard-to-discern words in obscure dialects, and the powerful texts, polished by time, are the starting points for appreciation of these gems. At any rate, my old record of the RVW arrangements has been worn nearly smooth by replaying, so I’m delighted to see this reissue appear.

Mark Sebastian Jordan


 


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