The title of this disc comes from the second song of Vaughan
Williams’ adorable cycle to words by Robert Louis Stevenson,
Songs of Travel. The songs were composed in 1904, but published
later in two volumes in what seems to be an almost random order.
Or rather, most of the songs were. The last song of the nine,
which most touchingly sums up the whole cycle, was apparently
withheld by the composer, and only discovered in 1960. With
that song in place, and the others in the now-established order,
the cycle is a most rewarding twentieth-century counterpart
to such earlier “wanderer” cycles as Schubert’s Die Winterreise.
Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins gives a most satisfying performance
of this lovely work. The tread of the opening is just right,
though the change of tempo for the third verse will be more
extreme than many collectors will be familiar with. The song
that gives the disc its title is one of Vaughan Williams’ most
beautiful utterances, and its tenderness is well brought out
by these artists. There is no doubting the sincerity at the
words “I will make you brooches and toys for your delight” in
the third song, but I think some of the fantasy of the song
is missing in this artist’s rather too direct approach. And
here we have to evoke the competition. Every Vaughan Williams
enthusiast has his or her favourite versions of this standard
work, but the most striking of recent years was undoubtedly
that by Bryn Terfel and Malcolm Martineau on DG. The very vividness
of Terfel’s singing has divided opinion: he uses his voice to
telling effect to illustrate the text, never at odds with the
music, but perhaps going further than the composer intended.
My own view is that Terfel’s reading is sublime, but I come
to a performance such as this one with a certain relief to hear
the songs sung in a simpler, less overtly sophisticated way.
Even so, there can be no denying that Terfel makes more of the
words than almost any singer one can name, and certainly more
than Hopkins does in this third song. Hopkins is very successful,
on the other hand, in the two love songs that follow – he is
particularly successful with the intense pathos of “In Dreams”
– and indeed in the rest of the cycle. He is ably accompanied
by Jerad Mosbey, but Malcolm Martineau makes the small cross
references from one song to another at once more obvious and
Composed in 1998, Canadian composer Srul Irving Glick’s cycle
is a real find. The anonymous insert note writer refers to the
composer’s “highly personal and contemporary musical language”,
but in truth the musical vocabulary is scarcely more advanced
than that of Vaughan Williams, and lovers of the earlier cycle
will not be shocked at the sound of this one. The title, Images
of Canada, encapsulates the work very well. Many of these images,
in words by Richard Outram, are of natural phenomena, but others,
such as the breathless whirlwind in the final song, “Windmill”,
are of man-made features too. The music is highly melodic and
memorable, the piano writing particularly rich and sonorous,
and I recommend this work, which I had never heard, to all lovers
Paul Bowles the composer and Paul Bowles the author of The Sheltering
Sky, amongst other works of fiction, were one and the same.
His cycle Blue Mountain Ballads brings out very well the gently
nostalgic humour of four short texts by Tennessee Williams.
The songs also very well demonstrate his avowed intention, in
writing vocal music, of “distorting speech the least amount
possible.” The melodies are straightforward, very singable,
and never overpower the words. The same might be said of the
accompaniment. This does not lead to blandness; on the contrary,
this short cycle is very entertaining. But it might be thought
inconsequential, particularly the final song which, though fun
in itself, is hardly conclusive in any real way. Joshua Hopkins
seems to have the measure of these songs. One can perhaps imagine
a slightly more unbuttoned style here and there, but with no
direct comparison available, these seem very fine performances.
A slight allowance has to be made for that uncomfortable feeling
that always creeps in when a singer adopts a regional accent.
Samuel Barber’s Three Songs, Op. 45 were composed in
1972 for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. All three songs are very
fine, but the second, in particular, “A Green Lowland of Pianos”,
a quirky, humorous evocation of events in the lives of “herds
of black pianos”, is sweetly beautiful in typical Barber fashion.
Hopkins and Mosbey bring great intelligence to their performance
which, taken on its own terms, is a very satisfying one. Only
when compared to that by Thomas Hampson and John Browning, in
the complete survey of Barber’s songs that originally appeared
on DG, does one note a certain want of tonal variety and expressiveness.
Hampson is more authoritative, and inflects his voice in a way
that brings the words – some of them quite difficult to follow
– more vividly to life. Browning is magnificent too, brilliantly
evoking the “gurgle” as the pianos stand “up to their knees
in the mire”.