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Time and Space: Songs by Holst and Vaughan Williams
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Jack Liebeck (violin)
William Vann (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
Texts included

Holst and Vaughan Williams enjoyed a long, close and musically fruitful friendship. It’s fitting, therefore, that this CD should be a collaboration between the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society and the Holst Society. Actually, it’s not the first time that an Albion Records release has paired the music of these composers. An earlier disc, Heirs and Rebels was a programme of historic recordings; this latest album, however, consists of brand-new recordings. The CD includes many first recordings and since VW and Holst were each other’s preferred critics of new pieces, it’s fascinating to hear one or two examples of both of them setting the same text.

One such instance is the piece entitled Cradle Song by Holst and Blake’s Cradle Song by VW. The text is from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. The two composers differ somewhat in their selection of stanzas but there’s sufficient overlap to enable comparisons. In fact, the contrast is marked. Holst’s music has an air of fresh innocence to it but might almost be described as jaunty. VW, on the other hand, provides a setting which is more in keeping with my expectations given the text; his music is gently reflective. But maybe my expectations were too one-dimensional. Holst’s response to the words strike me, on reflection, as equally valid. Mary Bevan sings both items beautifully.

The other case of a comparable response comes right at the end of the programme with settings of a text by Walt Whitman which VW also used for his choral/orchestral work Toward the Unknown Region (1907). These were earlier settings for solo voice and piano and it seems from the booklet notes that this was an occasion when they indulged in “competitive composition”. Apparently, when they came to judge the two Whitman settings, they decided VW was the winner, but I’m not so sure. VW’s setting is the more direct, confident and melodically memorable of the two but Holst’s effort is much more of an art song. His music is more ambitious, adventurous and complex. Furthermore, it seems to me to be more varied in response to the words. VW later made his setting into a unison choral song; in no way could Holst’s piece have been re-engineered in that fashion. These are two of the 14 recordings on the disc that Albion claim as world premiere recordings. In the case of the Vaughan Williams piece that may be true of its solo voice version but the unison choral version was included not long ago as the “filler” on Martyn Brabbins’ recording of A Sea Symphony (review).

The programme includes examples of both composers as folk song arrangers. All five examples here are sung by Roderick Williams. The arrangements are skilful – and they’re sung with flair by Williams. Two are particularly notable. Bushes and Briars has the distinction that it was the first folk song that VW collected, in 1903. His arrangement was made five years later. The Captain’s Apprentice is a particularly choice example of a melancholy English folk song. I’ve heard the melody before in the context of VW’s orchestral work, Norfolk Rhapsody No 1 because it was used as the principal theme in that work. However, I’ve not previously heard the song itself and I must admit I was unaware that the story related therein is such a sorry tale of child abuse. I shall listen to the orchestral work with new ears from now on.

There are four sets of songs on this disc. Roderick Williams offers Holst’s Six Songs. These date from 1902-1903 and they include three settings of lines by Thomas Hardy. Two of Holst’s songs set texts that are more familiar from the work of other composers. ‘Fain Would I Change That Note’ was set rapturously as Fair House of Joy by Roger Quilter. I don’t think Holst’s setting is in quite the same league but his music is eager and it’s very good to hear the words in the hands of a composer other than Quilter. ‘The Sergeant's Song’, one of the Hardy settings, is better known as ‘Rollicum-rorum’ in Finzi’s cycle, Earth, Air and Rain. Holst provides a good, robust response to the poem. ‘Invocation to the Dawn’ is, apparently, the first setting that Holst ever made of Sanskrit verses in his own translation; the music is rapturous and confident. I also liked another Hardy setting, ‘In a Wood’, which is passionate and romantic. However, I couldn’t help thinking that the last song in the set, ‘I Will Not Let Thee Go’, to words by Robert Bridges, tries rather too hard. Roderick Williams and William Vann are splendid advocates for all these songs.

Mary Bevan gives us an opportunity to hear VWs set of Housman songs, Along the Field. To my shame, I don’t know these songs, though I understand there’s been at least one previous recording (review). These songs are rarely heard and I suspect there are two reasons for that. One is that you require a very good violinist to commit to learning the demanding and important violin part. The other is that the music is spare; indeed, I’d go so far as to describe it as austere in places. In both respects, I’m reminded of the much later Ten Blake Songs for voice and oboe, written in 1957. In terms of the spare writing, more than once I was put in mind of the almost contemporaneous Riders to the Sea, which VW completed in 1927.

For Along the Field VW selected poems by Housman that are less commonly set by composers: three came from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (1896) and the remainder from the 1922 collection, ‘Last Poems’ These songs are quite unusual, not least in that the vocal lines aren’t as melodic as you might expect. The violin part is very important and acts as a fine foil to the voice part; Jack Liebeck plays superbly throughout. I was greatly taken, too, with Mary Bevan’s performance. In the highly original song that gives the cycle its title she sings in a way that conveys marvellously the unspoken thoughts going through the poet’s head and also words which are attributed to an aspen tree near where the poet finds himself. Her introspective account of ‘The Half-Moon Westers Low’ is ideally done, as is the last song, ’With Rue my Heart is Laden’ where she captures the regret and melancholy in both words and music. Not all the songs are slow in tempo but even when VW writes a setting in a quicker tempo, reflection and introspection are never far away. This an intriguing set of songs and I’m delighted to have discovered them in such a fine performance.

I’ve already cited Rob Barnett’s review of an earlier recording of Along the Field. I only found that review after I’d completed my listening to this Albion disc and I noted with great interest the following perceptive comment about the VW cycle: “The Housman song cycle was written in 1927 then revised in 1954. It must surely have had its origins in the snowy perfection of Holst's Four Medieval Poems (words adapted by Helen Waddell).” I suspect Rob was referring to Holst’s Four Songs for Voice and Violin. If so, the comparison can readily be made now for Mary Bevan sings them here, partnered once more by Jack Liebeck. The songs are indeed, as Rob describes them, “chaste and pure”. According to the booklet notes, Holst’s inspiration for this composition came when, in 1916, he chanced upon a young female student who was singing while simultaneously improvising on her violin. It seems that Holst’s original intention was that this work would be performed by a singer who would play the violin at the same time! When you hear the songs, you’ll realise how fanciful a notion that was. Thankfully, Holst quickly thought the better of it. The writing for the voice is more melodic than we find in Along the Field. Given the forces involved there’s, perhaps inevitably, a certain sparseness of texture but I don’t find the music austere in the way that VWs settings were at times. Mary Bevan sings them most persuasively.

Holst’s Four Songs, Op 4 come from much earlier in his career and are less exploratory in nature than the songs for voice and violin. The second of them, ‘Margrete's Cradle-Song’ sets some lines by Ibsen in English translation. The result is a soothing, gentle lullaby. ‘Soft and Gently’ takes words by Heine, again in English translation; here I like Holst’s simplicity of utterance. ‘Awake, my Heart’, a Robert Bridges setting, is the only one of the set in a quick tempo. The music is confident but it seems to me that the setting in compound time, at a swift pace, of a fairly wordy poem makes the vocal line seem a bit too “busy” Overall, though, these are attractive songs and they’re well done.

All the songs on this disc are worth getting to know. I think there’s a case to be made that the album does an even greater service to Holst than to Vaughan Williams. After all, quite a number of VWs songs are well known – and over the years Albion Records have brought even more of them in from the cold. However, Holst’s work in the genre represents a much less familiar side of his output. Indeed, I was astonished to learn that he wrote as many as 97 songs, but only 42 of them have been recorded – this disc has advanced that number with 10 recorded premieres. Not counting the two folksong arrangements, there are 16 Holst songs here and even now, 75 years after his death, five of these remain unpublished.

Both composers receive splendid advocacy here from Mary Bevan and Roderick Williams. The contributions of Jack Liebeck and William Vann are no less distinguished. Presentation is excellent, with the full texts provided and valuable notes. Deborah Spanton’s engineering reports the voices and instruments very pleasingly in the sympathetic acoustic of Potton Hall.

This welcome disc celebrates the friendship between Vaughan Williams and Holst by shining a light on less familiar items from their respective outputs, all of which are well worth hearing, especially in these excellent performances.

John Quinn

Gustav HOLST (1874-1934) Six Songs, Op. 15 H.68 (1902-03) [16:29]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958) Along the Field (1925 / 1927) [18:32]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS A Cradle Song (1894/1905) [2:32]
Gustav HOLST Cradle Song from Six Songs, Op. 16 H.69 (1903-04) [1:23]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Blake’s Cradle Song (1928) [1:53]
Gustav HOLST Four Songs, Op 4, H.14 (1896-98) [8:30]
Folk songs from the Eastern Counties and Hampshire
Vaughan Williams: Bushes and Briars (1908) [2:50]
Holst: The Willow Tree, H.83/6 (1906-08) [2:20]
Vaughan Williams: The Lark in the Morning (1908) [1:30]
Holst: Abroad as I was walking, H.83/1 (1906-08) [0:55]
Vaughan Williams: The Captain’s Apprentice (1908) 2:57]
Gustav HOLST Four Songs for Voice and Violin, Op.35, H.132 (1916-17) [7:49]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Darest Thou Now O Soul (1904? / 1925) [2:27]
Gustav HOLST Darest Thou Now O Soul, H.72 (1904-05) [3:53]