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Ralph VAUGHAN WILIAMS (1872-1958)
Purer than Pearl
Mary Bevan (soprano); Jennifer Johnston (mezzo); Nicky Spence (tenor); Johnny Herford (baritone); William Vann (piano); Thomas Gould (violin)
rec. 4-5 January, 2016, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Texts included

This valuable collection from Albion Records brings together a good number of songs and duets by Vaughan Williams. With the exception of Linden Lea most if not all of these items will be unfamiliar to many listeners, I suspect. The individual songs cover the period 1891-1935, including some quite early compositions. In addition there are eight songs from VW’s 1927 opera, The Poisoned Kiss, arranged by Adrian Williams. It’s not long ago that I enjoyed a Symphonic Rhapsody that he’s put together from the same opera (review). Opportunities to hear The Poisoned Kiss are likely to be pretty rare except for the complete recording on Chandos (review). However, there is a good deal of attractive music in the score and it seems to me that Adrian Williams has done a worthwhile job in extracting the ‘plums’ from it.

Summum Bonum, VW’s earliest surviving song, is a Browning setting. I was amused to read in the excellent booklet notes the composer’s own description of it as “a song which I thought I had composed but was really a passage out of the third act of Siegfried.” It’s a student work in which VW is audibly flexing his muscles but showing no real sign of what was to come. Nicky Spence sounds a little pressured by the rather unrelenting vocal line. The piano part of this grandiose song is written on a very large scale. Crossing the Bar may be the first setting by any composer of Tennyson’s famous lines. Johnny Herford sings it expressively. The third of these student settings, Wishes is another example of the young composer feeling his way.

The next three songs are grouped as Three Rumpelstiltskin Songs, not a title bestowed on them by the composer. It’s impossible to date them accurately though they almost certainly come from the late 1890s. Two of them strike me as very twee – both words and music – but the first of them, Spinning Song, is rather touching. Herford, who sings all three, sings this first song with great delicacy.

With Linden Lea we move onto much more familiar territory. Indeed, this is arguably VW’s most famous song. It’s performed here in an arrangement for SATB with piano made in 1929 by one Sumner Salter. The arrangement, of which the composer apparently approved, is a nice one.

The next two songs are quite significant for they are VW’s first settings of poetry by Walt Whitman. Both are for soprano and baritone with a violin obbligato. The Love-song of the Birds is an impetuous piece of writing, well-matched to the words. The real discovery here is The Last Invocation. In this rather beautiful song we get, at last, a glimpse of the mastery – and responsiveness to Whitman – that lay in the future. The inclusion of a violin was a masterstroke; at times the violin has the most eloquent melodic line of all. The music is rapturous at times and it’s splendidly performed.

How cold the wind doth blow is a folk-song setting for voice, violin and piano; interestingly the violin is held back until the third verse. Mary Bevan sings this lovely song beautifully. We’re told in the notes that Michael Kennedy rated this setting very highly and I’m not surprised. Dirge for Fidele sets Shakespeare’s famous lines from Cymbeline (‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun). Interestingly, VW set this text not as a solo song but as a duet – here Mary Bevan and Jennifer Johnston do the honours. The piece was published in 1922 though the notes tell us that Michael Kennedy believed it could have been composed as early as 1895. It doesn’t begin to rival Gerald Finzi’s inspired setting – did any composer do so? – but it’s a fine piece, sincere and beautiful.

The two male soloists give us the attractive setting of It was a Lover and his Lass and then the first part of the programme concludes with two folk-song settings for tenor and violin. The Lawyer is a jaunty number. The haunting Searching for Lambs put me in mind of the late Blake Songs. The notes describe the original song as “one of the most perfectly formed of all folk-songs, simple yet searching and profound.” Nicky Spence and Thomas Gould give an eloquent account of it.

The remainder of the programme consists of eight song and duets that Adrian Williams has extracted from the full score of The Poisoned Kiss and arranged with piano accompaniment. Actually, that statement isn’t quite accurate because, as Williams explains in the booklet, the first of the numbers, Secret are the Sounds of Night is an arrangement for soprano and tenor of the opening chorus. It has always seemed to me that one of the main issues with The Poisoned Kiss is the libretto by Evelyn Sharp. To be fair, it seems clear that VW wasn’t happy with her efforts and the words were subsequently revised twice, firstly by William Foss of OUP and later by Ursula Vaughan Williams after Sharp’s death in 1956. Despite their best efforts the text seems embarrassingly twee to me and some of the poetry is pretty close to doggerel. However, the music is very attractive and my advice would be to ignore the text as much as possible – for once I regret the clarity of the singers’ diction – and focus on VW’s melodious music. It’s Really Time offers an example of what I mean: the words are pretty dire but the music is extremely attractive – and the piece is very nicely sung by Mary Bevan and Johnny Herford.

In fact, all eight numbers are musically delightful. I would single out When I was Young, on which Jennifer Johnston lavishes gorgeous mezzo tone, and also Dear Love, a serenade expressively sung by Nicky Spence. Later, Spence and Mary Bevan, as the lovers Amaryllis and Tormentilla, have two fine duets, The Enchanted Air and How Strange it is. The latter features rapturous love music and in both cases one can overlook the poor words. As he did with the orchestral Rhapsody Adrian Williams has performed a signal service by making music from The Poisoned Kiss accessible to a wider audience than might otherwise be the case.

There’s a great deal of delightful music on this CD, much of it little known. The performances are exemplary. All four singers are on top of their respective games and the contributions of pianist William Vann and violinist Thomas Gould also give great pleasure. The performances have been expertly recorded by Mike Clements. The booklet notes are jointly authored by William Vann, John Francis and Adrian Williams and are full of valuable information and insightful comments.

This is a lovely disc that no lover of Vaughan Williams’ music should miss.

John Quinn

Summum Bonum (1891) [2:40]
Crossing the Bar (1892) [3:58]
Wishes (1893) [2:02]
Three Rumpelstiltskin Songs
Spinning Song [3:32]
Lollipop’s Song [0:52]
Rumpelstiltskin’s Song [0:53]
Linden Lea (1901) [2:40]
The Last Invocation (1904) [4:52]
The Love-song of the Birds (1904) [1:51]
How cold the wind doth blow (1912) [5:16]
Dirge for Fidele (1922) [3:53]
It was a Lover and his Lass (1922) [1:42]
Two English Folk-Songs (1935)
Searching for Lambs [3:31]
The Lawyer [1:51]
Eight Songs from The Poisoned Kiss (1927) arranged by Adrian Williams
Secret are the Sounds of Night [2:25]
It’s Really Time [3:03]
Blue Larkspur in a Garden [2:46]
When I was Young [2:59]
Dear Love [3:27]
The Enchanted Air [4:10]
Love Breaks all Rules [3:25]
How Strange it is [4:58]