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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Songs of Travel (1901-04) [24:20]
Six Studies in English Folk Song (1926) [8:53]
The Sky above the Roof (1908) [2:50]
Orpheus with his Lute (1902) [2:35]
Silent Noon (1903) [3:57]
The Winter’s Willow (1903) [3:12]
Romance for Viola and Piano [6:38]
Rhosymedre (1920, arr. for tenor, viola & piano by Richard Morrison, 2016) [3:47]
Four Hymns (1912-14) [14:29]
James Gilchrist (tenor)
Anna Tilbrook (piano)
Philip Dukes (viola)
rec. 2017, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk.
Texts included
CHANDOS CHAN10969 [71:31]

As Stephen Connock points out in his notes, this programme brings together VW’s love for the human voice and for the viola – an instrument which he himself played.

I was delighted to receive this disc for review as it presents the opportunity to hear James Gilchrist, a singer I much admire, in the Songs of Travel cycle. I wasn’t disappointed. As Mr Connock justly observes, there’s an “underlying poignancy” to these settings of poems by Robert Louis Stevenson and that quality seems to suit Gilchrist’s timbre very well. He’s also acutely alive to the lyrical, romantic quality of the music. So, even in the fairly robust ‘The Vagabond’ Gilchrist contrives to retain sweetness of tone, finding an ideal balance between resolution and lyricism. He accomplishes very well indeed the soaring lyricism of ‘Let Beauty awake’. Here – and not for the last time in this programme – I relished the playing of pianist Anna Tilbrook, Gilchrist’s regular recital partner for over twenty years. In this particular song it’s her delicate touch that catches the ear, most notably at the very end. Gilchrist conveys the bright eagerness of ‘The Roadside Fire’, the performance impelled along by Tilbrook’s deft playing.

Both musicians convey the rapture of ‘Youth and Love’, achieving an ardent climax at “Cries but a wayside word to her at the garden gate” where the reminiscence of the music of the third song brings a unity to the sentiments. There’s rapture, too, in ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’ and I love the poetry in Gilchrist’s singing, especially in the second stanza. He’s ideally suited to the nostalgic melancholy of ‘Wither must I wander?’ It’s always been a puzzle to me that during his lifetime VW withheld ‘I have trod the upward and the downward road’ since this song draws together so many threads, emotional and musical, from the cycle. Fortunately, it was discovered after his death and it’s hard now to imagine hearing Songs of Travel without it. Gilchrist and Tilbrook judge it to perfection, making it a fine summation of their estimable performance of the cycle. I’ve always been a great fan of the 1974 recording by Anthony Rolfe Johnson, another tenor whose voice fits this cycle so well (review). Gilchrist now ranks equally highly in my estimation.

He also offers the Four Hymns for the unusual combination of tenor, piano and obbligato viola. These are marvellous settings and perhaps the requirement for two accompanying instruments has held them back somewhat in the concert hall. ‘Lord! Come away’ is a seventeenth-century Advent text which invites the urgent declamatory music to which VW sets it. Gilchrist is excellent in conveying the tone of ardent devotion. In ‘Who is this fair one?’, a setting of verses by Isaac Watts. VW’s music increases in intensity as the seven-verse setting unfolds. The present performers do full justice to the music. The third Hymn, ‘Come Love, come Lord’ sets the last six lines of a long poem by Richard Crawshaw. (Finzi set the whole text as Lo, the Full, Final Sacrifice.) VW’s response to the text is music of rapt contemplation, introduced by an extended viola solo. Finally, there’s urgent joy in ‘Evening hymn’; and that certainly comes across in this performance. I’ve heard the Four Hymns done very well on disc in the past, notably in the unique, plangent timbre of Ian Partridge (review), but I don’t believe I’ve heard a better account than this new one from James Gilchrist and his colleagues.

Incidentally, it was a very intelligent piece of planning to preface the Four Hymns with Rhosymedre. When I saw this piece on the track list I was puzzled since I know it only as one of VW’s Three Preludes founded on Welsh Hymn-Tunes for organ. The version here recorded – for the first time, I assume – is an arrangement. Or, rather, it’s an arrangement of an arrangement. Richard Morrison, the long-serving music critic of The Times newspaper, arranged Rhosymedre for tenor and string quartet in 2008. In 2016 he re-arranged his piece for tenor, viola and piano and the present performers gave that version its first performance. The intelligent programme planning works on two fronts Firstly, it introduces us to the same forces that VW used in the Four Hymns. Secondly, Morrison has the tenor singing two verses of a hymn by Isaac Watts, whose words VW also used in the second of his Hymns. Morrison’s arrangement works very well, I think.

Violist Philip Dukes is heard in his own right in two items, in both of which he’s partnered by Anna Tilbrook. The Six Studies in English Folk Song were composed for cello and piano in 1926 but here they’re played in the composer’s own arrangement, made in 1927, for viola and piano. All but the last of the six short pieces are in a slow or at least moderate tempo – though the second one, marked Andante sostenuto, has pleasing forward movement in this performance. The husky, melancholic viola tone suits these haunting mélodies well but I do wonder if the work might have been even more effective if VW had included one or two tunes in a jollier vein. After all, the concluding piece (Allegro vivace), though the shortest of the lot, shows that the viola can be an agile instrument when required. The Romance, like the last of the Songs of Travel, only came to light after the composer’s death. Michael Kennedy suggested that the piece may have been written for Lionel Tertis, which leads Stephen Connock to speculate that it was penned in 1934 or 1936. It’s an attractive piece that includes within its short span some ardent passages and some episodes of introspection.

The remainder of the programme comprises individual songs. The Sky above the Roof, which receives an eloquent performance, is a setting of an English translation of lines by Verlaine. I recall that when I first heard it, sung by a baritone friend, I found it hard to comprehend – no reflection on his performance, I hasten to add. However, this searching song is well worth getting to know. Given that the song is so fine I was intrigued to read in the notes that VW was initially reluctant to undertake the request to set it because he didn’t care for the poetry of Verlaine. Apparently, so Ursula Vaughan Williams related, he undertook the task one afternoon when the alternative was to tidy his study. What an excellent excuse – and outcome!

Another piece of intelligent programming sees The Sky above the Roof followed by Orpheus with his Lute. It was astute to follow the introverted Verlaine song with this much more straightforward song, full of innocence and, in this performance, delicacy. It’s a charming song and I loved Gilchrist’s use of head voice. Silent Noon, from The House of Life is, after Linden Lea, probably VW’s best-known and best-loved song. Gilchrist and Tilbrook give a lovely performance. The Winter’s Willow is not, I think, as well known as Silent Noon, which is a pity. It sets a poem that was originally written in Dorset dialect. The piece sounds like a folksong setting though to the best of my knowledge the tune is original. It’s a lovely song and Gilchrist’s account of it strikes me as ideal.

This very fine disc will surely be self-recommending to all devotees either of Vaughan Williams in particular or of English song in general. The performances are uniformly excellent, displaying great empathy with the music. The venue for the sessions, Potton Hall, has become a destination of choice in which to record song recitals. I don’t recall ever being disappointed by the sound on a recording, on any label, emanating from Potton Hall. This Chandos recording, engineered and produced by Jonathan Cooper, is no exception. The performers are well balanced against each other and the sound is clear and present yet has pleasing warmth. Stephen Connock’s notes are excellent.

John Quinn

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