It’s hard not to be gripped by a performance of On Wenlock Edge
when the opening of the cycle is projected in so vital, and so galvanizing a way. Truly, in this performance, ‘the wood’s in trouble’. In intensity it reminds me of the very first recording the work received, when in 1917 the tenor Gervase Elwes - who premiered it back in 1909 - recorded it with the London String Quartet, and pianist FB Kiddle, who had also played at the premiere. That’s the measure of how seismic the opening is, though recording quality has rather moved on since the days of the acoustic horn. That said, there is a cost to this intensity, and I feel it most in the some of the accompanying string passages - I appreciate the wind’s ‘in riot’ but the string accompaniment to the line about ‘the gale of life blew high’ is just too Schoenbergian for me. No other recording I know, and certainly not that of Elwes, has recourse to this.
This miscalculation - if such it is - is a rarity, and not the responsibility of Mark Padmore who sings with ardent, concentrated intelligence and fine tone. The two voices in Is My Team Ploughing?
are sufficiently well differentiated. He doesn’t need to skirt caricature by contrasting the kind of desiccated death voice with the life-affirmation of the living man. Indeed what he offers instead is almost a semi-scena, a presentation of remarkable power in which the strings, acting almost as a Greek Chorus, offer nothing less than an appalled commentary that gradually sinks into a kind of consolatory epilogue. He catches the music’s nature-wonder of Oh, when I was in love with you
where pianist Huw Watkins tolls the bell expertly. Lightening of vocal production allied to colour shading conveys the text with acute perception for its meaning and for its implications, in this longest and most changeable of the settings. I think the Tallis-like string pointing is sensitively suggested; it vests the music with a piety and a presentiment. As with most contemporary performances, Clun
is taken at a forward-moving tempo, one that is buoyantly sustained.
This is a truly admirable performance, and I’d recommend it alongside, but not above, the famous Ian Partridge/Music Group of London performance on EMI. Padmore-watchers will know that he has recorded it before, with the Schubert Ensemble on Chandos CHAN10465, though I’ve not heard it and can’t offer thoughts on how his interpretation differs now. Historians must have the Elwes - it’s in a London String Quartet box on Music & Arts, and was on Cheyne and Pearl. Don’t confuse it with the later post-WW2 LSQ (a different group altogether) which recorded it with the American tenor George Maran and pianist Ivor Newton in the 1950s. It’s on the budget Alto label but is a bit sturdy and stately and lacks drama. Far more up-to-date are John Mark Ainsley on Hyperion, a Nash Ensemble performance and excellent, though again less dramatic than Padmore. James Gilchrist on Linn is better still, and more convincing than Adrian Thompson and the Delmé with Iain Burnside on Hyperion.
Partridge - with Janet Craxton the cor anglais virtuoso - is also the hero of The Curlew
discography and I’m sure their performance with the Music Group of London will be known to many readers. This is a difficult work both to sustain and to project. It needs two wind soloists - the poor flautist tends to get overlooked in the header notes - who are atmospheric and expressive; it needs a singer who can inhabit the ethos without becoming bogged down; and it needs a string quartet that knows when to assert and when to hold back. It also needs perfect ensemble balance. Not much to ask for. As with On Wenlock Edge
Padmore’s strong sense of vocal characterisation, his ear for nuance and colour - derived from the text, it needs to be noted, and not applied from without - ensure that the music’s power emerges unsullied by portentousness. Nicholas Daniel is the outstanding cor anglais player. In lesser hands and voices, The Curlew
can seem attritional. When the voice tends to the lugubrious, or is not well pitched, or when it sounds gestural or generic one’s heart sinks and the mind wanders. Not so here. Contrasts are defined and generate increased tension and the work sounds, interestingly, more modern in conception than I can recall hearing before. Certainly more modern than in the old recordings by René Soames, with the great Leon Goossens, and the venerable Armstrong/MacDonagh National Gramophonic Society 78 set. James Griffett’s recording still stands up well as does Adrian Thompson’s with the Duke Quartet. A small detail for fanatics: Griffett’s oboist is Mary Murdoch, daughter of the pianist William Murdoch, sonata partner of Albert Sammons, who is first violinist on the Elwes recording of On Wenlock Edge
. I suspect this qualifies for some kind of prize for most tortuous connection.
The remainder of the programme includes VW’s Ten Blake Songs,
once more long the preserve on disc of Partridge and Craxton. The music’s folkloric inflexions are richly evoked, not least in A Poison Tree
and, most explicitly, in The Divine Image.
The settings where Padmore sings unaccompanied are conspicuously successful too. For Cruelty has a human heart
he curdles the voice appropriately. The programming novelty is Jonathan Dove’s setting of Mark Strand’s poem The End.
Dove replicates The Curlew
’s instrumentation for this meditation on impending death, vesting the lines with a sea-undulation and rhythmic stress that evokes the poetry with tactile refinement. The stresses on certain words - ‘remembered’ and ‘suspended’ in particular - show the level of Dove’s sensitivity setting polysyllables and the use to which they can musically be put. The stasis of arrested flight is especially beautifully done.
The Styx-like journey to the end is another good reason to hear this excellently recorded and annotated disc. Singing and playing are both at a very high interpretative level.
Previous review: John Quinn
(November 2013 Recording of the Month)
Vaughan Williams review index: Vocal works