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CD: AmazonUK AmazonUS

Art Songs of the British Romantics
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind (1903) [2:17]
Adoration (1905 rev. 1918) [3:17]
The Last Invocation [3:09]
Love Went A-Riding (1916) [2:15]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Is She Not Passing Fair? () [2:56]
Rondel Op.16 No.3 (1894) [1:49]
The Poet’s Life (1892) [3:30]
The Wind at Dawn (1888) [3:41]
Roger QUILTER (1877-1953)
Go, Lovely Rose Op.24 No.3 () [3:12]
Now sleeps the Crimson Petal Op.3 No.2 (1904) [2:07]
Love’s Philosophy Op.3 No.1 (1905) [1:53]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Songs of Travel (1901-1904/1960) [23:42]
Stanley Wilson (tenor); Malcolm Halliday (piano)
rec. 19 January, 18, 28 February and 22 June 2010, Mechanics Hall, Worcester, Massachusetts, USA
MSR CLASSICS MS1377 [54:00]

Experience Classicsonline

All too often it is easy for admirers of English music to lament how rarely it is performed let alone recorded by non-British performers. This is particularly true when one moves away from the core repertoire of Elgar, Britten and some Walton. So I feel especially churlish to have to welcome this recital of English song quite so guardedly. Quite why the recital is titled ‘British’ since the four composers are all resolutely English, let alone ‘Romantic’ in the accepted sense of the word escapes me. This signposts a general lack of insight that is embodied here at every turn. Unfortunately, on any level it fails to measure up to established rivals in the field.

The main work here is the glorious Vaughan Williams cycle Songs of Travel. It dates from around 1904 and represents the composer’s first attempt at an extended song-cycle. The influence – in form if not content – of similar ‘wanderer’ cycles Winterreise or even Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen is clear. But the miracle of Vaughan Williams’ music is the fusion of the art-song with the flavour of something altogether simpler yet in that simplicity rather profound. Yes there are moments where you hear that Vaughan Williams the composer is not yet the finished article but this remains one of my favourite English song-cycles bar none. It was originally written for baritone and I prefer the extra earthiness the lower lying voice can provide. There have been so many marvellous versions – John Shirley-Quirk on an early Saga LP looms large. Then there is the quasi-operatic Bryn Terfel on the DG recital disc that takes its name from the opening song The Vagabond. To be honest I find Terfel’s approach of dramatising every word excessive and somewhat overwhelming but there is no doubting the whole-hearted commitment of that approach. The stand-out version for me, sung by a tenor, has to be Anthony Rolfe-Johnson on a superb disc that has appeared on various labels (review) and includes Ireland’s Land of Lost Content and Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad cycles. Sometimes Rolfe-Johnson was accused of forcing his tone but on this recording it is meltingly beautiful. This changes the ‘feel’ of the cycle, lifting it into a spiritual rather than earth-bound journey. Both approaches are valid and different songs are better served by one or the other. The infinite shining heavens breaks my heart in the Rolfe-Johnson version such is the rapt beauty of his singing.

The tenor on this disc is American Stanley Wilson who sadly possesses neither the character of Terfel nor the tonal beauty of Rolfe-Johnson. Not that beauty is a pre-requisite; try Robert Tear’s forceful reading originally on Decca/Argo (I think). Wilson’s main problem is that the thought behind the musical gesture is just too generalised. His sound has something of a Peter Pears quality to it which you will either like or not. My main issue with it is that his instrument requires quite a lot of heft to the sound to carry the voice over the high points in a phrase. Elsewhere in the recital there are songs that need this kind of musical punch so it works better; here in the Vaughan Williams it does not. Take the second song Let Beauty Awake. Yes the song is marked ‘f’ – loud but I take this to be ardent not strident. It is possible to be both lyrical and loud, Wilson loses the former when achieving the latter. I’m loath to mention the pronunciation for fear of sounding too little-Englander but there is an inflection to just about every word that does not affect its intelligibility but does warp the sound of the language away from the country of origin. The musical generalisation that afflicts Wilson appears in the playing of his accompanist Malcolm Halliday too. As playing it is fine but lacking in imagination or insight. Try the opening of the cycle again; David Willison for Rolfe-Johnson plays the marching opening very short and clipped, giving the singer’s line “Give to me the life I love” a bright-eyed joy. Conversely, Malcolm Martineau for Terfel is quieter yet faster, injecting dramatic urgency into this wanderer’s quest. Philip Ledger for Robert Tear is heavier – the left hand more emphasised, the tempo slower – this traveller trudges more wearily. Compared to any of these Halliday is simply bland – nothing is ‘wrong’ just lacking insight. There is a degree of rubato written into these songs but as ever these markings can become heavy and mannered if over-observed as here. It’s the curse of the tenuto markings that abound in Elgar’s scores. For sure they need to register but as the subtlest elongation of a note or phrase not a marked slowing as often happens here.

The rest of the programme is welcome in principle especially for the Elgar and Bridge songs. I find it remarkable that two of the finest English composers of the 20th century are both virtually ignored as song-writers. Recitals such as this will include Vaughan Williams, probably Finzi and Ireland and the ubiquitous Shropshire Lad settings but rarely Elgar or Bridge. Collections are available – the Bridge in a Hyperion set and the Elgar in a developing series from Channel Classics which has reached volume 2 and counting. But if great tranches of either composer daunt then the sampler of four songs by each presented here should be welcome. It would be hard to make an argument for these songs containing either composer’s greatest or most typical work and Wilson and Halliday do little to dispel that notion. I find it all too routine. Bridge sets substantial texts by Shakespeare, Keats and Whitman (full texts in English only are supplied) but somehow Wilson fails to get under the skin of the poetry. Track 2 Adoration builds to an impressive climax that suits his voice well but the opening of the same song to the words “Asleep, O sleep a while ...” lacks the rapturous stillness it surely needs. Track 4 Love Went A-Riding again allows Wilson to sing in the full voice which seems most comfortable but this is undermined by some rather fudged piano accompaniments which don’t keep the dotted compound rhythm as tight and energised as it requires. The Elgar songs work far less well. These are all early examples – not that the liner would tell you this, no dates or opus numbers being supplied. Wilson tries to ‘lighten’ his tone but the effect simply underlines the salon/ballad heritage of the writing and in so doing reduces the lyrical power of Elgar’s writing. Interestingly on Channel Classics (review) two of these songs are given in their baritone versions sung by Konrad Jarnot. He is a fine heroic singer who avoids the slight coyness that affects Wilson. This dramatic approach is echoed by soprano Amanda Roocroft in the most instantly appealing song of the four; The Wind at Dawn [track 8]. The words are the least impressive text of any on the disc but they were written by the future Lady Elgar when she was still C. Alice Roberts; hence Elgar was inspired to write a miniature scena of real power. If you like Elgar but do not know this song do seek it out. He thought enough of it to return to it in 1912 and orchestrate it. It can be heard - in a similarly lack-lustre approach - on the deleted ClassicO disc devoted to rare Elgar conducted by the uninspiring Douglas Bostock (CLASSCD334 - review). Elgar wrote a piano part of virtuosic dimensions that Reinhild Mees on Channel plays to perfection - technique and feel for the genre in perfect accord. Wilson and Halliday – taking nearly a whole minute longer than Roocroft/Mees – miss the point totally. Sometimes you put things down to interpretative licence and other times it’s just wrong. This sounds cautious and rather twee. In one track the limitations of this album are exposed. Right down to the fact that there are no liner-notes aside from the texts and obligatory biographies hence for the unknowing listener the crucial and passionate link between poet and composer is unexplained. The only other part of the liner is a brief note from the performers saying how much they have enjoyed learning this music – this includes a misspelling of Vaughan Williams’ name.

The programme is completed by three Quilter songs which by now you will not be surprised to hear exist in finer versions elsewhere. In tenor versions and for value it is hard to look beyond the Naxos recital (review) - taken from the defunct but wonderful Collins Classics series - featuring the marvellous Anthony Rolfe-Johnson again and silver-toned Lisa Milne (in Now sleeps the Crimson Petal) all accompanied by the miraculous Graham Johnson whose playing on this disc alone is a master-class in the art of accompaniment. Given that the current disc plays for a measly 54 minutes it is hard to be enthused by any element when measured against any other frame of reference. Apologies if this reads as the product of musical xenophobia – it’s not; my enthusiasm for the Dutch-sourced Elgar song-series tells me that I’m not utterly inward-looking. The repertoire chosen here is a delight ... in other hands.

Nick Barnard






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