The Bliss of Solitude
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) On Wenlock Edge (1909) [21:28]; Two Pieces for Piano: The Lake in the Mountains (1947) [4:02]; Prelude on Rhosymedre (arr. Bryan Kelly) (1920; ?) [3:51]
Andrew Wright (b. 1955) The Bliss of Solitude [17:28]
Roger Quilter (1877-1953) Three Pieces for Piano Op.16 (pub. 1915) [12:24]; Three Shakespeare Songs Op.6 First Set (1905) [7:28]; ‘Music, when soft voices die’ Op.25 (1927) [1:36]; ‘June’ (1905) [1:48]; Three Songs, Op.3 (publ. 1904, 1905) [5:45]
Richard Dowling (tenor); Joanna Smith (piano)
rec. 8, 11 August and 14, 15 October 2008, Brentwood Cathedral. DDD
HERALD HAVPCD 354 [74:13]

The first time I heard RVW’s On Wenlock Edge was on 12 October 1972. It was a radio broadcast as part of the composer’s centenary celebrations and the RFH concert consisted of Job, the Eighth Symphony and the orchestral incarnation of this great song-cycle. The London Philharmonic was conducted by the venerable Sir Adrian Boult. (The tenor was Richard Lewis and a recording of the Housman work was issued on a now-deleted Intaglio CD INCD7411 Ed.) I was bowled over by all three works - but was, as they say in Yorkshire, ‘gob-smacked’ by On Wenlock Edge. A wee bit later, I heard a performance of the version for piano and string quartet. I rushed out and bought a copy of Housman’s poems as well as the LP. Both have been treasures ever since. However, it has taken nearly forty years to (consciously) hear this work in its setting for tenor and piano only. I note that the score does suggest that the string quartet is ‘optional’: it is a case of being seriously impressed once again. Richard Dowling - a name I had not heard of before - and Joanna Smith bring a delight to this work that is sometimes lacking in better known exponents. From the opening bars of the eponymous song to the last notes of ‘Clun’ this is a beautifully stated performance. If I were to sum it up in a word it would be magical rather than histrionic. I cannot emphasise how impressed I am with this performance.  
Joanna Smith plays two lovely works by Vaughan Williams. The reflective The Lake in the Mountains, which was a spin-off from the film music to the wartime drama, set in Canada, The 49th Parallel. The well known Prelude on Rhosymedre is heard in the piano arrangement by Bryan Kelly. It is a restrained and ultimately near-perfect work.

I have not come across the music of Andrew Wright before. The Arkiv catalogue does not give any listings for him: I cannot find a website or page devoted to his works. However, The Bliss of Solitude is a little masterpiece and well-deserves to be known to British - I assume he is British? - music enthusiasts. Apparently, Wright has composed for the Church with a number of liturgical works to his credit including his Requiem of 2005. The present song-cycle is, for him, a step along a new path. The genesis of the work came about when the composer was given a copy of Wordsworth’s poetical works. He selected six of the poems to set to music. The poems chosen are some of the most popular numbers - although the first song, 'A Sense Sublime' and the fifth, ‘Nature’ are perhaps less well-known than they should be. I hold my hand up and admit that I was sceptical when I received this disc - for a composer to risk setting ‘To a Butterfly’, ‘Daffodils’, ‘She Dwelt among th’ hidden ways’ and ‘To a Skylark’ is a huge gamble. Yet it has worked well. Even the almost hackneyed popularity of ‘Daffodils’ does not detract from the innocence of this setting: the same can be said of the other three pot-boilers. This is a very well-balanced song-cycle. If I were to try to give a ‘soundscape’ of these pieces I would suggest that they are well and truly in the tradition of English Lieder as established over the past century. I guess that Finzi is an influence, but other composers such as Vaughan Williams and even Roger Quilter are never far away. However the music rarely, if ever, has the darker tones of Peter Warlock or Ivor Gurney. The words and the music are well wrought, with the lyrical melodies largely deriving from the ‘declamation’ of the text. The piano accompaniment is interesting and supportive without becoming overbearing.

One of the pleasures I had in recent years was the discovery that Roger Quilter wrote piano pieces. Most often associated with his excellent corpus of songs, there are very few recordings of his other music available. The Three Pieces for Piano Op. 16 were composed between 1909 and 1916. Certainly the most accomplished of them would seen to be Summer Evening. This is an impressionistic work that manages to conjure up the mood of the title. John Ireland enthusiasts will know the piano piece of the same title by that composer. Both works are treasures and both deserve to be better known. The Dance in the Twilight and At a Country Fair are perhaps a little more predictable in their salon music roots, although all three works are worthy of their composer.

The remainder of the CD is devoted to some eight songs by Quilter. The two groups, Three Shakespeare Songs Op.6 and Three Songs Op. 3 contain some of the composer’s best loved works. They are not cycles, but collections of songs. I was particularly impressed with Richard Dowling’s interpretation of ‘Blow, blow, thou winter wind’ which is a well-poised song that balances positive and negative thoughts in the poet’s mind. It ends with a reference to ‘This life is most jolly’. The other two songs in this set are ‘Come away, death’ and ‘Oh mistress mine’. One of the most perfect Quilter settings has to be the Shelley poem ‘Music, when soft voices die’: it is ever popular and has been recorded many times. However Dowling makes it sound new and fresh. ‘June’ is a setting of a poem by Nora Hooper and is a new discovery to me - although it is on the Hyperion disc (CDA66878) by John Mark Ainsley and Malcolm Martineau. It is good to have it here. The CD closes with the Three Songs Op.3 - Shelley’s ‘Love’s Philosophy’, Tennyson’s ‘Now sleeps the crimson petal and finally Henley’s ‘Fill a glass with golden wine’. This last song makes a fitting close to an excellent and varied recital.

I do have three criticisms of this CD production: it has nothing to do with the performance. Why, O why will CD companies not walk that extra mile and provide full details of all the works presented. I had to search my reference books, catalogues and biographies to enter the dates for composers and works. It was easy (but time-consuming) for me - but not all listeners have internet access or a large music library! Secondly, I know nothing of Andrew Wright - there are no biographical notes here - so I still am none the wiser. Lastly, there are no programme note references to the RVW piano pieces: neither are the authors of the Quilter song texts given - apart from the Shakespeare.

This CD showcases the considerable talents of Richard Dowling. His North Country credentials are clear for all to see! He studied at Manchester University, sang at Chetham’s School of Music and for a time was a Lay Clark at Manchester Cathedral. He is a long-standing member of the Manchester University Chamber Choir. Joanna Smith is a talented and sympathetic accompanist: it is good to hear her interpretation of the excellent piano solos on this CD.

This disc will be enjoyed by all enthusiasts of English Music. It is a fine programme that balances older and more recent composers with some well-known pieces and a few new or rediscovered works. All in all, it is a most satisfying release.

John France