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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
On Wenlock Edge (1907) [21:17]
Ten Blake Songs (1957) [18:42]
Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
The End (2012) [8:53]
Peter WARLOCK (1894-1930)
The Curlew (1920-22) [23:20]
Mark Padmore (tenor); Nicholas Daniel (oboe/cor anglais); Huw Watkins (piano)
Members of Britten Sinfonia/Jacqueline Shave
rec. May 2012, Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, London. DSD
English texts and French translations included
HARMONIA MUNDI HMU807566 [72:35]

This new disc from Mark Padmore handily gathers together three important sets of English songs for the tenor voice. It adds for good measure what I presume is the first recording of a new work from Jonathan Dove, commissioned jointly by Britten Sinfonia and Wigmore Hall specifically for Mark Padmore to sing.
Dove decided to score his piece for the same combination of instruments that Warlock used in The Curlew, namely flute, cor anglais and string quartet. For his text he selected a poem by Mark Strand (b. 1934) which uses the image of a ship leaving harbour and sailing out onto a vast sea. It serves as a highly effective metaphor for the uncertainty associated with the end of human life: we don’t know what awaits us after death. The string parts suggest the rocking motion of the sea while the two wind instruments may be taken for the cries of circling sea birds. Over this accompaniment Dove has written plangent and expressive long vocal lines which seem ideally suited to Mark Padmore’s voice. I noted in particular the expressive use that Dove makes of triplets in the vocal part. Strand’s poem is an eloquent one to which Dove has responded with similarly eloquent music. I found it a moving piece and I’m delighted that it’s been recorded - and recorded so very well by Padmore and his colleagues.
We’re on more familiar territory with the pieces by RVW and Warlock though the forces involved for each mean that none of them is heard in live performance quite as often as the quality of the music would otherwise demand. We’re not short of recordings, however, and for many years those by Ian Partridge have led the lists. I’ve had his disc of all three pieces in my collection for a very long time indeed and I esteem it highly. The most recent incarnation of that disc was an EMI set which came Rob Barnett’s way in 2009 (review), though I don’t know if the set is still available. Rob said that Partridge “can be heard at his finest, clean-toned, intelligently and emotionally engaged with Housman’s words in On Wenlock Edge. This version has not been excelled.” In many respects that judgement still holds good, though the EMI recordings, made in 1970 - The Curlew was set down in 1973 - are now starting to show their age; there’s nowhere near the depth of sound and aural perspective that you’ll experience on this new Harmonia Mundi disc. Still, Ian Partridge’s unique timbre and great understanding of both texts and music means that his recordings of all three works should be in any self-respecting collection of English song discs.
I’d also like to put in a word for the very fine Linn disc (CKD 296) made in 2006 by James Gilchrist on which he offersOn Wenlock Edge and The Curlew. Though it may be an extravagance I think you can make a strong case for owning Gilchrist’s SACD as well as this new Padmore recording. That’s because, firstly, Gilchrist’s performances are excellent and, secondly, because he offers two other works, Gurney’s Ludlow and Teme cycle and the rarely heard Elegiac Sonnet by Bliss.
What of Mark Padmore’s performances? Well, in summary, all three are exceptionally fine. On Wenlock Edge opens in dramatic style with a reading of ‘On Wenlock Edge’ that has plenty of strength and sinew, both from singer and players: the storm clouds and gusts of wind are much in evidence. The performance of ‘Is my team ploughing?’ is most affecting. Padmore conveys perfectly the light innocence of the dead young man and the worldly vigour of his friend, the survivor. His delivery of the last two stanzas, where we finally learn what has happened after the young man’s death, is full of searing emotion. In her very useful note Jo Kirkbride refers to the “rich symphonic landscape” of ‘Bredon Hill’. Padmore brings great expressive variety to this wonderful song and the instrumentalists support him superbly. Everyone combines to bring a glacial stillness to the verse that begins “But when the snows at Christmas” while the tragic dénouement of the last two stanzas is thrust home powerfully until the cry “O noisy bells, be dumb” sounds as if it’s wrenched from Padmore. Finally, he realises the mood of wistful recollection in ‘Clun’ marvellously.
Fifty years and most of a musical lifetime separate On Wenlock Edge and the Ten Blake Songs. These require an excellent oboist as well as a fine tenor and, happily, that’s just what we have here. RVW’s writing is such that the sound of the voice and the reed instrument complement each other splendidly - the oboe is silent in the fourth, sixth and ninth songs. I love the feeling of lightness and innocence that Padmore brings to the first song, ‘Infant Joy’. Both artists invest much of ‘The Piper’ with an infectious spring while there’s a becoming and highly appropriate pastoral innocence to their account of ‘The Lamb’. Not all is innocent and pastoral, however: Padmore deploys a suitably bitter tone to ‘Cruelty has a human heart’ and earlier on the performance of ‘A Poison Tree' is similarly unsettling. Throughout the performance Padmore’s range of colour and way with the words is extremely satisfying and Nicholas Daniel, in his sprightly and sensitive playing, matches the achievement of the great Janet Craxton for Partridge.
The Curlew is a highly unconventional and original work. It’s not really a song-cycle, more a set of songs. Furthermore, not only is the composition of the instrumental ensemble unusual but also the role of the players is far more than that of ‘mere’ accompanists to the singer. Indeed, one of the five movements is a purely instrumental interlude and the first song has an extensive instrumental prologue and postlude. From the start of that melancholy prelude it’s clear that we’re to hear a distinguished performance. The playing is superb and when Padmore sings his delivery is expressive and, at times, passionate. The longest song is ‘I cried when the moon’. Here, the yearning of Yeats’ words and Warlock’s music in the first stanza is expertly conveyed. The increased urgency of verse two is equally well put across and the initially gentler and more positive tone of verse three offers welcome contrast - until we reach the darker, otherworldly concluding bars. The players are extremely sensitive in the way they approach the Interlude, distilling a fine atmosphere. Once again, Warlock is unconventional in his approach to the concluding ‘I wander by the edge’, leaving the voice unaccompanied until the singer’s last two lines. Mark Padmore and his colleagues give a dedicated and unsettling account of Warlock’s elusive score.
This is an extremely fine disc. Mark Padmore’s singing is technically beyond reproach and his eloquence is telling in all four works on the programme. At every turn he finds superb partners in the members of Britten Sinfonia. The recording, which I listened to as a conventional CD, sounds well-nigh perfect to me, giving clarity and atmosphere. Harmonia Mundi’s booklet is immaculately produced.
I shan’t be parted from my copy of Ian Partridge’s CD but this new release is one of the finest discs of English song to have come my way in a long time. I urge you to hear it.
John Quinn

Vaughan Williams review index: Vocal works