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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) on the ALBION label - A triumphant contribution  
Albionrecords.org


Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Sky Shall Be Our Roof - Rare songs from the operas of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ten Songs (Cold Blows the Wind on Cotsall (Showman); Life must be full of care (Aunt Jane); Sweet little linnet (Hugh); Hugh's Song of the Road; Ah! Love I've found you (Duet for Hugh and Mary); The Devil and Bonyparty (Showman); Alone and Friendless (Hugh); Gaily I go to die (Hugh); Here on my throne (Mary); Hugh my lover (Duet for Hugh and Mary) from Hugh The Drover (1924)
Two Songs (Greensleeves; See the Chariot at hand) from Sir John in Love (1929)
Seven Songs (Watchful's Song (Nocturne); The Song of the Pilgrims; The Pilgrim's Psalm; The Song of the Leaves of Life and the Water of Life; The Song of Vanity Fair; The Woodcutter's Song; The Bird's Song) from The Pilgrim's Progress (1951-2)
Sarah Fox (soprano); Juliette Pochin (mezzo); Andrew Staples (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone); Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, 18-20 March 2007, 2-3 May 2007; Henry Wood Hall, 11 May 2007. DDD
ALBION ALB001 [60:00]
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I have always admired the RVW Society. This has been pretty much on the strength of their very professionally produced quarterly journal and the consistently rewarding content - always a challenge for single composer societies. I just wish they would make their archive of newsletter issues available as pdf files on a CD or DVD. They were founded in 1994 and but it is only since 2007 that the Society has been active in issuing recordings. Albion Records is an offshoot of the Society and the rather splendid five CDs produced to date uphold the Society's high standards while at the same time resisting the temptation to duplicate a composer already much recorded in certain repertoire.

The Sky Shall be our roof sets out in rarely encountered voice and piano format songs from the operas. The works in question are ten songs from Hugh the Drover, two from Sir John in Love and seven from The Pilgrim's Progress. Each works well in this format. Cold Blows the Wind and to some extent Hugh’s Song of the Road reek of hale and hearty Stanford bluffness. Life must be full of care with its hints of Linden Lea is very touching. The first Hugh and Mary Duet shows a master at work spinning passionate lines with an engaging humanity. The bouncy and jocular Finzi's Budmouth Dears must have been influenced by The Devil and Bonyparty though in this ‘contest’ Finzi is the master. Hugh, his first opera, dates from 1924 and the composer made these piano arrangements that same year. There's a great deal of touching music here. Burnside, who is a practised hand in English song, is unfailingly sensitive.

Sir John in Love is my favourite of the five operas; the second is the sadly disdained The Poisoned Kiss. The two songs from Sir John are the Falstaff-beguiling Greensleeves. Fenton's song See the Chariot at Hand - with its Flos Campi erotic swoon - is passionately done by Andrew Staples.

The Pilgrim's Progress I grew to know from the Boult EMI boxed set of LPs. Watchful's Song seems very static here. The Song of the Pilgrims is most imaginatively done and successfully fends off the magnetic hymnal turgidity of the piece. The Pilgrim's Psalm is a glorious piece of invention and is done with golden assertion by Roderick Williams. The Pandarus-oily tone of The Song of Vanity Fair sets Ursula Wood's words. It comes off with swaying ululative relish.

The producer engineer is Michael Ponder - a one time violist whose own performance of Bantock's viola sonata really should be issued.

There are eleven world premieres here.

These songs from three operas are most enjoyable and an indispensable supplement to your RVW songs shelf. The strong and responsive singing is most sensitively done.


Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
(1872-1958)
Kissing Her Hair - Twenty early songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams
To daffodils (baritone); Rondel (baritone); How can the tree but wither (baritone); Claribel (tenor); Linden Lea (baritone); Blackmwore By The Stour (baritone); Boy Johnny (baritone); If I were a Queen (soprano and tenor); Tears idle tears (baritone); Orpheus with his lute (soprano); When I am dead my dearest (soprano); The Winters Willow (baritone); Chanson de Quete (baritone); Ballade de Jesus Christ (baritone); The Splendour Falls (baritone); Dreamland (soprano); The Sky above the roof (baritone); Nocturne (baritone); A Clear Midnight (baritone); Joy - Shipmate - Joy! (baritone)
Roderick Williams (baritone) Sarah Fox (soprano) Andrew Staples (tenor) Iain Burnside (piano)
rec. Potton Hall, Westleton, Suffolk, 18-20 March 2007, 2-3 May 2007; Henry Wood Hall, 11 May 2007. DDD
ALBION ALBCD002 [59:24]
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The same musicians, sessions and engineering team for The Sky Shall be our roof also produced the second CD of twenty of RVW's early songs. These date from between 1895 and 1925 although most of the songs here are from the 1900s. His first marriage was to Adeline Fisher whose Pre-Raphaelite looks were fey and frail before illness cruelly transformed her. The Clock of the Years was not kind. The Rondel - Kissing her hair - the second song - may well be a reminiscence of their first rapture. Linden Lea is the first song here to be at all familiar. Roderick Williams essays a pleasing rustic accent but I am not sure how ‘Dorset’ it is. From the same year (1901-2) comes another Dorset-Barnes setting in Blackmwore by the Stour. It has a folksong rum-ti-tum flavour. Then there’s a sweet sighing lilt to Orpheus and a nice bounce to the soprano-tenor duet If I were a queen/king. Tears idle Tears from 1903 has a new darkness and gravity about it. Orpheus with his Lute is sweetly rounded and trimmed - a beautiful piece. It does not efface memories of Gurney's later setting but deserves recognition for its fine and touching invention. It is superbly done by Sarah Fox. The winter's willow is the third of the three Barnes' settings here. One notes a pleasing lilting pattern across the Barnes songs. The two French songs are pleasant effusions even if the French accent is not all it might be - the word Joli, for example. The splendour falls is the last of the Tennyson settings of which there are three here. One cannot hear these words without thinking of Britten's much later setting. However this resounding stentorian baritone song complete with dynamically clever echoing dialogue is good . A real discovery is Dreamland to words by Christina Rossetti. This is the epitome of a song finding a time-stilling heart. Mabel Dearmer's translation of Verlaine provides RVW with another golden opportunity. This is fully exploited to convey the heat of high afternoon through the affecting ‘fall’ of RVW's lyrical essence. Rossetti, Tennyson, Barnes, Shakespeare - all are represented but perhaps second only to Shakespeare Whitman went straight to his heart. This is heard in full mastery in the three Whitman poems especially in the swaying, almost expressionist Nocturne with its whispers of heavenly death. The words are challenging to set too. A Clear Midnight appealed to the composer’s sense of eternity and the visionary. Some tatters of Stanford however blow through the pages of Joy Shipmate Joy. This disc includes the world premiere recording of Rondel. Like the first disc it was released to mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the composer in 2008.

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Where Hope Is Shining - songs for mixed chorus by Ralph Vaughan Williams
No longer mourn for me (Sonnet 71); Echo's Lament for Narcissus; Three Elizabethan Part Songs: Sweet Day; Three Elizabethan Part Songs: Willow Song; Three Elizabethan Part Songs: O Mistress Mine; Come away Death; Linden Lea (arranged by Arthur Somervell); Ring out your bells; Rest; Fain would I change that note; Alister McAlpine's Lament; The Winter is Gone; Mannin Veen (Dear Mona); Our love goes out to English skies; Loch Lomond; The Mermaid; A Farmer's Son so Sweet; The Turtle Dove; The New Commonwealth; Sun, Moon, Stars and Man - A cycle of Four Songs: Horses of the Sun, The Rising of the Moon, The Procession of the Stars, The Song of the Sons of Light
Ørjan Hartveit (baritone); Alistair Young (piano)
Joyful Company of Singers/Peter Broadbent
rec. St Paul’s Church, New Southgate, London N11, 29-30 March 2008.
ALBION ALBCD006 [62:18]
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The third disc moves away from voice and piano to choir. This selection spans a life-time of creativity. Much of it is threaded through and borne up by the human voice for which RVW had a lifelong enduring love. One can hear in Echo's Lament his delight in the passionate invention of Thomas Tallis and of Spem in alium in particular. The three Elizabethan Part Songs are drawn from much the same vintage as the early songs on the Kissing Her Hair CD. They are things of cool lunar delight - no overt heat of passion here. Dowland and Campion are the models though not slavishly followed. Come away death is in much the same mood and style pattern. Linden Lea we already know from the early songs disc. Here the dialect side is softened by the choir. Quietude is cast aside by the 1902 setting of Ring Out your bells a setting of words by Sir Philip Sidney though it too regularly curves down into quiet. Carillon effects abound. Rest is another Christina Rossetti setting. By the way, Rossetti almost certainly came to the composer's attention through his acquaintance with William Morris, he of Kelmscott fame. Fain would I change that note dates from the year he worked with Ravel, 1907. Its melodic material has something in common with his Elizabethan pieces as well as Linden Lea. The uncomplicated Alister McAlpine's Lament is sweetly done as is Loch Lomond with its use of solo voice echoing that of Grainger in A Londonderry Air and Delius’s Brigg Fair. The 1912 English ploughboy setting of The winter is gone is for tenors and baritones alone. In Mannin Veen we think naturally of Haydn Wood but Vaughan Williams uses the slow-swinging traditional Manx melody to smoothly idiomatic and touchingly reserved effect. Our love goes out to English skies is a hearty hymnal-style song written just after his return from traumatic active service in the Great War. The Mermaid has a jocular robust tone (with piano) and the main song is taken by baritone with the choir joining for the cheering chorus. The Turtle Dove stands high in this company with its Delian tone. Like Brigg Fair it is a sheer masterpiece with its endlessly inventive use of solo voice and choir in so many permutations. This setting for mixed voices and baritone solo is from 1924. The superb New Commonwealth is of similar exalted achievement. It is a choral version of the prelude to the film The 49th Parallel. The words are by his collaborator - I had not realised over how many years - Harold Child (1869-1945). CHild had written the libretto for Hugh The Drover. It is a remarkably moving piece. Do not miss this. We end with Sun Moon Stars and Man, a cycle of four songs to words by Ursula Vaughan Williams from 1955. It starts a bit abruptly after the end of New Commonwealth. This is the version for mixed voices with piano. Here, playing the piano, is Alistair Young. The galloping and confident Horses of the Sun is borne along by the sort of kinetic power unleashed in the 1931 Piano Concerto but also hinted at in the sanguine exuberance of the Five Mystical Songs. The Rising of the Moon is the second song and is of a cooler calorific radiance - almost Holstian in its slight chill. The Procession of the Stars recalls the icy chiming of the glacier and the penguin music in Scott of the Antarctic but also seems to predict the language of William Mathias in This Worldes Joie. The final Song of the Sons of Light has an overwhelming and sanguine swing. This joint cantata was commissioned by the Schools Music Association. It was premiered by Boult conducting 1150 voices from the SMA and full orchestra on 6 May 1951. These final four songs are taken from the choral-orchestral The Sons of Light (review review review review). 

By the way am I the only one to hanker after a reissue of Swingle II's RCA LP (RL25112) of English and French songs. It included an ineffably beautiful Bluebird and a wonderfully memorable set of RVW's Three Shakespeare Songs. OK so the balance was rather ‘pop’ but the impact was indelible. If it has been reissued I do not recall seeing it. I am sorry no longer to have access to that light-filled sequence of singing.

I note that the present disc jumps from ALB 001 and 002 to ALB 006. I wonder what else awaits or is intended from ALB 003-005 and 007-008.

Albion's discs are invariably well documented by Stephen Connock OBE. Little blemishes such as referring to Ethel Smyth as Smythe are regrettable but not common. The rather too small type for the booklet of 001 has gone by the time we reach 002 - not to return.

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS
(1872-1958)
Music In The Heart - A commemorative Album marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Ralph Vaughan Williams on 26th August 1958.
CD 1 Serenade to Music (1938)
Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra/Ralph Vaughan Williams
rec. live, Royal Concert, 22 November 1951, Royal Festival Hall, London
The Pilgrim's Journey (arr. Christopher Morris and Roy Douglas): 1. Cast thy burden upon the Lord (tenor and baritone); 2. Into thy hands, O Lord (baritone); 3. Who would true valour see (soprano and baritone); 4. Unto him that overcometh (women’s chorus); 5. Vanity Fair (tenor and baritone); 6. He that is down (soprano); 7. The Lord in my Shepherd (chorus only); 8. Alleluia (soprano, tenor and baritone)
Louis Bové (soprano), Clifford Scott (tenor), John Peck (baritone), Arnold Ostlund Jr. (organ); Plymouth Choir/Henry Pfohl
rec. live, Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims, Sunday 4 April 1965
CD 2
The Teachings of Stanford and Parry - A talk by RVW (edited from broadcast 17 November 1955)
Excerpt from the Funeral Service of Ralph Vaughan Williams (Westminster Abbey, Friday 19 September 1958 at 11.30am)
ALBION ALBCD009 [53:56 + 29:30]
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ALBCD009 is a 2 CD set of historic recordings including the first ever commercial release of The Pilgrim's Journey. The latter is yet a further manifestation of The Pilgrim's Progress heard here in its arrangement by the Roy Douglas. It is a sort of concert scenario laid out for soprano and baritone soli, mixed choir and organ. It represents an epitome of the morality itself; RVW did not see it as an opera. Before we get to The Pilgrim’s Journey we hear the composer conducting the 1951 performance of Serenade to Music with the Liverpool Philharmonic on the South Bank rather than in any of the Liverpool venues. What we hear is from the Royal Concert at the then very new and futuristic RFH.

The soloists include many who were the named soloists in Henry Wood's 1938 premiere: sopranos: Stiles Allen; Isobel Baillie; Ena Mitchell; Elsie Suddaby; Altos: Muriel Brunskill; Astra Desmond; Mary Jarred; Gladys Ripley; Tenors: William Herbert; Richard Lewis; Stephen Manton; Heddle Nash; bass-baritones: Norman Allin; Robert Easton; Roy Henderson; Harold Williams. Among this roll-call of honour among the soprano Ena Mitchell had not sung at the original and only Gladys Ripley among the altos. By contrast only Heddle Nash among the tenors had sung in that first Wood line-up. All the original bass-baritones were still there. This recording bears in upon the listener what a sensual piece this is. At times one thinks of Flos Campi. It is certainly one of the master's greatest works and makes a fascinating play against the classic Wood recording. The sound is sometimes a little congested but it is very listenable if you have any extensive experience of archive recordings. As ever the mind reconstructs the sound and sweep. The violin's sweet consort to the choir at the end puts one in touch with a special vernal ecstasy and the soprano ascendant on the words ‘sweet harmony’ rounds this piece out not with a sleep but a satiated sigh.

After too short a pause we start in a roaring blaze of organ tone a 1965 recording of the rarely encountered The Pilgrim's Journey. The latter is a version of ‘The Morality’. The work is in eight movements devised by Christopher Morris and Roy Douglas. It parallels the concert versions of Sir John in Love (In Windsor Forest recorded on EMI by Reginald Jacques and Norman Del Mar) and Hugh the Drover (Maurice Jacobson's 1951 A Cotswold Romance - recorded on Chandos). The organ gives this piece a notably churchy feel but it’s also available in a version with orchestra. In any event this is an invigorating performance - listen to the outgoing Who Would True Valour See. The Vanity Fair movement has some vigorously grating writing for the organ and conveys the wailing worldliness of The Fair. After the materialism of Vanity Fair the reeds and pipes of the organ and the solo soprano provide spring water epiphany in He That is Down. There is however a congestion in this 1965 recording which I take to be mono but set that against the concentration of fervour. The final alleluia features the solo voices of soprano, tenor and baritone against the intertwining exalted weightiness of the full choir. This music and performance are truly reflective of the authentic RVW spirit - that intensity of delight once described as ‘notable ecstasy’.

The shorter bonus disc has a half hour talk by RVW on Parry and Stanford. It is edited from a broadcast on 17 November 1955. The venerable composer takes his breath with evident care but delivers his message with forthright directness. Interestingly he says Parry was misunderstood by Bax and Warlock. He reminds us that Parry wrote about Strauss and Schoenberg. Parry believed morally wrong to make a nice sound on the orchestra. Parry as a composer potentially among the greatest. It's a lucid talk - obviously to a present audience - who laugh at expected moments and shuffle from time to time. It would have been nice if the talk had been separately tracked to allow moving across its breadth of subject matter. Westminster Abbey 19 September 1958 with hushed voice of Dimbleby père can that be Come Down O Love Divine.

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Folk Songs of the Four Seasons: Prologue. Spring: Early in the Spring (for three voices unaccompanied); The Lark in the Morning (for two voices); May Song - Full chorus with semi-chorus. Summer: Summer is a-coming in and The Cuckoo - Full chorus; The Sprig of Thyme - Full chorus; The Sheep Shearing - (for two voices unaccompanied); The Green Meadow (unison - all voices); Autumn: John Barleycorn (full chorus with semi-chorus); The Unquiet Grave (for three voices unaccompanied); An Acre of Land (unison - all voices); Winter: Children's Christmas Song (in two-part harmony); Wassail Song (unison with descant); In Bethlehem City (for three voices unaccompanied); God Bless the Master (unison with descant) (world premiere recording)
In Windsor Forest (The Conspiracy - Sigh no more ladies; Falstaff and the Fairies - Round about in a fair ring-a; Wedding Chorus - See the Chariot at hand; Epilogue - Whether men do laugh or weep) (world premiere of this arrangement for women’s voices by Guthrie Foot)
Choir of Clare College, Cambridge; Dmitri Ensemble, Cambridge/Sir David Willcocks
rec. West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge, 9-10 January 2009.
ALBION ALBCD010 [55:22]
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Of the five Albion discs issued to date the most ambitious and exciting is this latest. The CD redresses a longstanding lacuna in the RVW recorded music catalogue. At last we can now hear the Folksongs of the Four Seasons. This work for women's voices and orchestra was written for the first singing festival of the National Federation of Women's Institutes. This was in 1951 - Festival of Britain year when idealism borne of the Second World War still resounded but with hopes for a new world. The work makes intelligent and inspired use of the folksongs RVW had collected in England between 1904 and 1910. This store has provided the composer him with a deep source from which to replenish his style and inspiration. This recording is by a venerable doyen among the British choral traditions: Sir David Willcocks. It was issued to mark the 90th birthday of Sir David Willcocks on 30 December 2009. Willcocks and the superbly prepared choir are joined by one of the country's youngest orchestras: The Dmitri Ensemble. Be assured, the roster for the ‘Ensemble’ takes it to full orchestra strength. This is not some cut-down chamber grouping and the listening experience bears this out very convincingly.

Folksongs of the Four Seasons is an almost completely unknown work. It is laid out in fifteen movements grouped in five sections: Prologue, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter. It seems strange to finish on winter although it is largely Christmas that is celebrated rather than the icy chill of mortality.

The silvery sopranos Early in the Spring. The English leafy greenery and birdsong of The Lark in the Morning with its typically woodwindy. May Song has a cheerful Schwanda-like touch of Jaromir Weinberger about it. The interesting trajectory of the work next takes us into summer with Summer is a coming in which is in roundelay form. It’s dynamic and full of youthful strength and optimism. Inevitably RVW picks up on an element of bluff Englishry - the sort one encounters in more famous works such as the English Folk Song Suite. Autumn brings the cheering full-flight power of John Barleycorn with brass to the unrepentant fore. The Children's Christmas song shows RVW's compassionate humanity when he writes with touching effect of the poor children at Christmas ‘wandering in the mire’. Wassail song has the ale-jar clinking power of the John Barleycorn movement. It would have appealed to Moeran and Warlock though one can imagine Warlock's libidinous observations on the songs being set for females - fewer Tyneside ladettes in those days. In Bethlehem City is a silvery carol cherishable for any Christmas watch service. The final section God Bless the Master has that wonderful sense of journey done, homecoming summation and sky ascendant victories. RVW writes with light in his pen and light shines through these cleverly laid out and lovingly performed movements. 

It is a pity that there were with the exception of Malcolm Williamson's The Dark and the Light to be no more such pieces for the WI annual celebrations. The enlightenment had been snuffed out as costs and the confusion of cultural excellence with elitism took hold.

In Windsor Forest is well enough known but not in this version for orchestra and female only voices. Sigh No more Ladies is in fact wonderfully light and airily passionate. exciting. Round about in a fair ring - a gullible and ever-optimistic Falstaff is deep in the forest surrounded by rings of faery-seeming folk. There’s a lovely evocation of sylvan magic here at 1:02. See the chariot at hand - more music spun from mithril and moonlight. In Whether men do laugh or weep we hear to great advantage the superb enunciation and coordinated precision of the choir of Clare College. This brings to an end a folksy and often irresistible confection. There is so much in Sir John In Love.

Albion intend further CDs including the complete piano transcriptions of Job and A London Symphony. They will be well worth looking out for. I hope that they will also turn their attention to the shreds and incomplete tatters of the Cello Concerto and the opera Thomas the Rhymer. It may be a heretical view in some quarters but I - and I am sure many others - would welcome a well-informed inventive and style-consistent realisation of these works.

Rob Barnett

 
 


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