Most Grand to Die
George BUTTERWORTH (1885-1916)
Bredon Hill and other songs [16:06]
Ivor GURNEY (1890-1937)
Four Songs (Songs from the trenches) (1915-1917) [12:52]
Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1909-1911) [14:31]
The Twa Corbies (1914) [4:53]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Songs of Travel (1902-1904) [25:32]
Sleep (1913-14) [3:21]
James Rutherford (baritone); Eugene Asti (piano)
rec. September and December 2008, Potton Hall, Saxmundham, Suffolk, England. DSD
English texts included
BIS-SACD-1610 SACD [70:07]
I’ve heard and admired James Rutherford in concert a couple of times in recent months, most recently as an eloquent soloist in Sea Drift (review) so the opportunity to hear him in some of the finest English songs was not to be missed. It’s a little surprising to see that these recordings have been “in the can” for nearly four years. Their release now is most welcome.
Rutherford opens his account with the less well-known of George Butterworth’s sets of Housman songs. Bredon Hill is the first item on the disc and immediately we hear a firm, well-focused baritone voice. The tone is full and very pleasing and the diction is excellent. In fact, these characteristics will prove to be constants throughout the entire recital. I particularly appreciated the clarity with which Rutherford enunciates the words. BIS provide all the texts but, in all honesty, I found little need to refer to them while listening. Rutherford displays a keen understanding of the words he is singing and I liked, for example, the excellent legato that he deploys for the more melancholy stanzas of this song (stanzas 5 and 6, from 2:13). At the end, the words “I hear you, I will come” are delivered, quite rightly, as a cry of despair but the emotion is not overdone.
The remainder of this collection of five songs is equally well done. The singer’s voice is beautifully controlled and weighted in the melancholic ‘When the lad for longing sighs’ to which Eugene Asti contributes some sensitive piano playing. I admired the control - both technical and emotional - that James Rutherford brings to ‘With rue my heart is laden’.
Butterworth’s Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, which are roughly contemporaneous with the Bredon Hill set are better known and, perhaps, a bit more approachable. In his useful notes Malcolm MacDonald comments that Butterworth “perfected a distinctive idiom which suggested folk song without quotation and scrupulously observed the accentuation of the poetry.” That’s especially true of Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’, I think. I enjoyed Rutherford’s account of these wonderful, quintessentially English songs very much, right from the exquisite opening to ‘Loveliest of trees’, which shows off his top register to fine effect. Though his voice is a large one he can use it nimbly, as he does in a well-articulated performance of ‘Think no more, lad’. In ‘The lads in their hundreds’ he shows us how well he understands and can put across the text; every word is weighted to perfection. As an example of his perceptive artistry sample - and relish - the wonderful soft head voice that he employs for the line “And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old”. The last song, ‘Is my team ploughing’, presents a real challenge to the singer, not least from the need to present two very different personalities. Rutherford uses a marvellously controlled mezza voce for the dead man’s verses - perhaps he overdoes it very slightly in stanzas 5 and 7? - in a performance that is technically superb and which I found very convincing.
During his tragic life Ivor Gurney composed some of the greatest songs ever penned by an English composer and James Rutherford has selected some of the very finest from Gurney’s output. He communicates the aching melancholy of ‘In Flanders’ very well and follows this with ‘Severn Meadows’. This magnificent song, simple yet sophisticated, is one of the very few in which Gurney set his own poetry and it’s intensely moving. Rutherford’s reading of it is very fine, made all the better by the restraint that he brings to his delivery. ‘By a bierside’, which includes the words that give this album its title, is one of Gurney’s most ambitious songs. Rutherford’s account of it is commanding. The last word in the programme is given to Gurney. His wonderful song, ‘Sleep’, benefits from yet more expertly controlled singing. Equally admirable is the pianism of Eugene Asti who demonstrates here, and throughout the programme, fine tone and a most sensitive touch.
Songs of Travel is a conspicuous success. Rutherford begins ‘The vagabond’ in an appropriately resolute, confident frame of mind. However, at the second hearing of the words “Let the blow fall soon or late” one notices how accurately he observes the instruction pp parlante. In the rapturous ‘Let Beauty awake’ Rutherford’s splendidly even tone and seamless legato give great pleasure and I love the expressive rubato through which he enhances the words “Let her wake to the kiss of a tender friend”. To ‘The roadside fire’ he brings the necessary urgency yet this is never at the expense of the line and I like the rhapsodic way he delivers the passage beginning “And this shall be for music…” However, the success of the performance is attributable to both artists. One notes, for example, the excellent rubato in Asti’s playing during ‘Youth and love’; here, and elsewhere, he shapes the music persuasively and with imagination. Asti excels also in ‘The infinite shining heaven’, another song where Rutherford’s excellent vocal control is on display.
I enjoyed every minute of this disc. The standards of performance and interpretation are consistently high and though most collectors will have at least one version of most of these songs I’d urge you to make room on your shelves for James Rutherford’s stylish and idiomatic performances. The production values are up to the usual high BIS standards, not least the first rate sound - I listened to this disc as a conventional CD. The documentation is also very good - I noticed just one tiny slip in the notes where a slip of the pen means that the date of RVW’s death is given as 1957. That apart, this release is blemish-free and the title of the disc is highly appropriate: it is indeed “most grand”!
Make room on your shelves for James Rutherford’s stylish and idiomatic performances.
Vaughan Williams review index