Let Beauty Awake
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Songs of Travel (1904) [23:44]
Srul Irving GLICK (1934-2005) South of North – Images of Canada (1998) [16:56]
Paul BOWLES (1910-1999) Blue Mountain Ballads (1979) [6:38]
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981) Three Songs, Op. 45 (1972) [7:47]
Joshua Hopkins (baritone); Jerad Mosbey (piano)
rec. May 2009, Salle Françoys-Bernier, St.Irénée, Quebec, Canada
ATMA ACD2 2615 [55:38]
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 more subtle.
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 of song.
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”.
A fine Songs of Travel nestling in a most attractive programme.