Although I still long for the chance to experience live performances of his works, it must be said that the representation of Vincent Wallace on disc does at last provide an opportunity to reassess the kind of superior and begrudging generalisations common throughout most of the last century. In particular Naxos has excellent recordings of his operas Maritana and Lurline and also of some of his piano music. The present disc acts as a very useful and enjoyable supplement to the two operatic recordings, and arguably is of greater musical interest than the piano music which does tend towards the merely decorative (review; review; review).
As well as the full English texts the booklet contains a general background to Wallace and his music and detailed information about each song, all by Andrew Lamb, the author of a book (Fullers Wood Press, 2012) about the composer. He explains that Wallace supplemented his income from operas by writing piano music and drawing-room ballads. No indication is given as to how many of the latter there are altogether or what proportion are included here, but it appears that these have been chosen to avoid the more maudlin sentiment often found in ballads of this period. This selection therefore may not be representative of the composer’s songs as a whole, but what is included is certainly varied, imaginative and of greater musical interest than those of most of his British contemporaries.
Sally Silver and Richard Bonynge are joined by the flautist Anna Noakes for two songs and by the mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard for one song. This usefully adds variety, although these items are all placed in the first half of the recital. It might have been better to have spread them out more or to have provided the greater variety of a male voice at some point. Surprisingly, however, there is little sense of sameness even when the disc is heard as a whole. The changing character of the songs is well managed right from the start. “Why do I weep for thee?”, with its typically Victorian theme of lost love is followed by “Through the pathless forest drear” from the opera The Desert Flower, a boisterous account of a tiger hunt. Later, two songs with flute obbligato show off the singer’s flexibility and “Good night and pleasant dreams” is a Tyrolien. All of these help to prevent the listener feeling that the disc contains a surfeit of generic Victorian songs.
Although she is often to be heard in opera houses throughout Europe, as recorded here Sally Silver would not sound out of place in the (large) drawing rooms for which these songs were intended. This is a compliment, as too conventionally operatic a manner would be likely to overwhelm the character of these essentially modest songs. The piano parts are of greater musical interest than those of Wallace’s contemporary, Michael Balfe, and are played with great aplomb by Richard Bonynge who makes the most of their varied character. The recording sounds natural, and without being too dry gives a fair impression of hearing the songs in a drawing room rather than a concert hall or church.
The newcomer to Wallace’s music would be best to start by sampling the two complete opera recordings. The present disc forms an admirable supplement to them, and even if one would be hard pressed to describe any of the songs included here as being of especially high music quality they are all as enjoyable to hear as I suspect they are to perform.
Why do I weep for thee [2:55]
Through the pathless forest drear [2:29]
Bird of the wild wing [2:47]
Orange flowers [4:02]
Softly, ye night winds [2:49]
Happy birdling of the forest [4:16]
The gipsy maid [4:59]
Seabirds wing their way [2:28]
Over the silvery lake [3:09]
It is the happy summer time [2:18]
Wild flowers [2:50]
Go! Thou restless wind [3:36]
Cradle song [2:58]
The star of love [3:41]
The spring and summer both are past [3:20]
The winds that waft my sighs to thee [2:53]
Good night and pleasant dreams [2:04]
Old friends and other days [2:27]
The leaves are turning red [3:54]