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Whither must I wander 
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Songs of Travel (1904) [24:22]
James Frederick KEEL (1871-1954)
Three Salt-Water Ballads (1919) [6:09]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
King David (1919) [4:55]
Aaron COPLAND (1900-1990)
At the River (1952) [4:04]
Ten Thousand Miles Away (arr. Steven Kohn, 2000) [4:18]
Nikolai MEDTNER (1880-1951)
Wanderer’s Night Song (1905) [2:41]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-56)
Liederkreis, op.39, no.5 Mondnacht (1840) [3:50]
Will Liverman (baritone)
Jonathan King (piano)
rec. 2017/18, Skillman Music Recording Studio, Brooklyn, USA

Overall, I feel that this recital lacks a little bit of structure. The main event is quite definitely RVW’s Songs of Travel: perhaps this should have been presented as the final work - and maybe the CD ought to have begun with the vibrant Salt-Water Ballads. I did feel that the concept of this being ‘a recital of travel songs’ was stretched a little bit in places, especially with the ‘single’ songs.

I always feel privileged that my introduction to English art-song was Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Songs of Travel. ‘For the record’, this was John Shirley Quirk, baritone, accompanied by Viola Tunnard on the piano. It was released on an old SAGA LP which is still in my collection. Like many of my generation, I was brought up on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novels – Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Black Arrow. What I did not realise at that time was that Stevenson had written much poetry, both in English and Scots, so, it came as delightful surprise to discover the poems drawn from his Songs of Travel and Other Verses set to music by Vaughan Williams. I soon came to realise that this song cycle was a perfect fusion of words and music.

The ethos of this work is that of an educated and sensitive ‘super-tramp’: the ‘world-weary’ artist who decides to step aside from the social whirl. An interesting assessment is made in Wikipedia, which I had not clocked: Songs of Travel is one of a set of important ‘wayfaring’ song-cycles including Franz Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and his Winterreise, yet Vaughan Williams’ ‘bitter-sweet’ work does not suffer from the ‘naivety’ of the former or the ‘destructive impulses’ of the latter.

Will Liverman presents these songs with a sensitivity and wisdom seemingly beyond his years. He manages to create a subtle balance between the ‘trudging’ ‘Vagabond’ and the magic of ‘Let Beauty Awake’, which is my personal favourite; then, there is the vivacity of ‘The Roadside Fire’, the sheer poetry of ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’ and the boyish passion of ‘Youth and Love’. Equally thoughtful is ‘Whither must I wander’, which surely brings a tear to the eye of anyone whose childhood home is no longer there, and ‘Bright is the Ring of Words’ is powerfully sentimental. The final song, the posthumously added ‘I have trod the upward and downward slope’, combines a sense of despair with the hope that the journey will continue even after death. The thematic quotations from several of the previous songs adds to the cyclical nature of the work - and let’s not forget the sensitive accompaniment provided by Jonathan King.

The second important collection of songs is James Frederick Keel’s nautical Three Salt-Water Ballads. These were composed in the aftermath of the Great War and set poems by the English poet, writer and traveller, John Masefield. The most popular number is Trade Winds, which commanded considerable popularity for many years. The ‘Port of Many Ships’ is thoughtful and reflects on the sailor’s ‘final’ voyage. The cycle closes with the rollicking, but sinister, ‘Mother Carey’.

I understand that commentators often regard Herbert Howells’s King David as the pinnacle of his song writing. I appreciate that this setting of Walter de la Mare’s text epitomises much of Howells’ musical style with its modal inflections, its perfectly contrived balance between soloist and piano, and its congenial setting of the words, yet, I have never really enjoyed it and besides, I am not sure what it has to do with travel.  That said, it is beautifully sung here.

Aaron Copland’s ‘At the River’ is taken from his second set of Old American Songs. It is a beautifully wrought number based on a once-popular evangelical hymn with music and words by the Rev. Robert Lowry, dating from 1865. Clearly, it is about a Bunyanesque journey to the sacred river and a life of blessedness with the angels and saints.

‘Ten Thousand Miles Away’ is the most ‘modern’ song on this CD. It was arranged by Steven Mark Kohn and included in his American Folk Set Volume 1 (2000). This lovely number is based on a traditional song which centres on the journey’s destination, ‘his true love’, rather than the rigours of travel. It is well-written and exquisitely sung.

I think that Nikolai Medtner’s ‘Wanderer’s Night Song’, has little to do with ‘travel.’ This Lied is taken from his Nine Songs after Goethe, op.6 and has more to do with relief from mental anguish than tourism. 

This varied recital closes with the dreamlike ‘Mondnacht’ (Moonlit Night) from Robert Schumann’s song cycle Liederkreis, op.39, no.5. The poems were written by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff and the work was composed in the year Schumann married Clara Wieck. The sentiment of the song displays a typically Romantic attachment to the idea of landscape with its varied emotions of ‘adventure, yearning, confusion, isolation and desolation.’

The baritone soloist is brilliant throughout this recital. Will Liverman is a rising star in both the world of opera and the concert room. He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2018 and in January of this year (2020) he became the first African-American to sing the role of Papageno (The Magic Flute). The pianist Jonathan King makes a huge contribution to the success of this CD with his sensitive and sympathetic accompaniments throughout. The liner notes written by Joanna Wyld are excellent and include the texts of all songs. They are presented in English, German and French.

Apart from my opening reservations, this is an outstanding recital. I would have expected a little more material than what is included on this CD: 50 minutes seems a wee bit mean nowadays. I guess that Liverman could have squeezed in the whole of Schumann’s Liederkreis at a pinch, which would have rebalanced the recital.

John France

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