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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Folk Songs - Volume 1
Folk Songs from Sussex (1912) [45:53]
Six English Folk Songs (1935) [13:55]
Sea Songs from The Motherland Song Book, Volume IV (1919) [8:41]
Mary Bevan (soprano): Nicky Spence (tenor): Roderick Williams (baritone): Jack Liebeck (violin): William Vann (piano): Chorus - Helen Ashby and Kate Ashby (sopranos): Cara Curran (alto): Benedict Hymas (tenor): James Arthur and Nicholas Ashby (basses)
Texts included
rec. June 2020, Henry Wood Hall, London
ALBION ALBCD042 [68:41]

This the first volume in a project to record all 80 folk songs that Vaughan Williams arranged for voice and piano or violin. Almost three quarters of these songs have not previously been recorded so the projected four volumes will contain fully 57 pieces new to the composer’s discography. As an index of the way Albion means to continue, this inaugural disc contains 23 songs, of which 15 are world premieres.

The major collection is Folk Songs from Sussex (1912). They were collected by Percy Merrick (1869-1955) from the Lodsworth farmer Henry Hills (1831-1901) between 1899 and 1901. There seem to be no photographs of Hills - unlike Henry Burstow who supplied Vaughan Williams with a number of songs and whose photograph is reproduced in the booklet - but to satisfy my curiosity I found one of Hills’ son, also called Henry, after a simple internet search. Merrick recorded many of the words and Cecil Sharp, editor of Book V in Novello’s Folk Songs of England series, added more verses where appropriate.

The 14 songs offer a panoply of engaging pleasures on long established tropes. Martial valour with concomitant death is a central feature of James Wolfe’s demise after the strategic feat of scaling the heights of Abraham in Quebec (Benjamin West’s painting of Wolfe’s death is reproduced very well alongside the text in the booklet). The songs are distributed among the three singers Mary Bevan (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor) and Roderick Williams (baritone), pianist William Vann present throughout, whilst violinist Jack Liebeck accompanies on two of the fourteen and a small chorus reprises the last line of each verse of the second song, Low Down in the Broom, an interesting effect. One encounters The Pretty Ploughboy, far less to do with acreage and tilling the soil than the stark subject of the press gang. Roderick Williams never overplays his vocal hand; no exaggerations or effects, rather a straight baritonal approach devoid of West Sussexery.

One of the most interesting of the songs, both for its expressive development and for the shifting nature of the piano accompaniment, is O Who Is That That Raps at My Window? sung by Mary Bevan with real skill as she negotiates this strange semi-scena of a folk song, her voice growing from almost disembodied to full toned, accompanied by the similarly increasing confidence of the piano, which ends playing quietly triumphant block chords. It’s a setting that goes to show that it’s really not all tra-la-la in these settings. Captain Grant tells the story of an avuncular highwayman shortly to meet his Maker whilst Come, All You Worthy Christians is an appropriately stoical Biblical setting.
The Turkish Lady tells the story of English slaves of Barbary pirates, reflective of the numerous raids on the coast of England, predominately the south-west coast, by marauding North African corsairs. There’s an undercurrent of the baroque in VW’s setting. The regret-laden The Seeds of Love finds the violin adding its sorrowful note to this quietly withdrawn work whilst Bevan and Nicky Spence negotiate the limpid Here’s Adieu to all Judges and Juries which finds the piano accompaniment spare and resigned. A passage in the final setting, Lovely Joan, was taken by VW as the central panel in his setting of Greensleeves.

The most well-known setting in this disc is Rolling in the Dew, the fifth of the Six English Folk Songs of 1935. Albion has already recorded this collection on ALBCD013 where it was sung by baritone Derek Welton with Iain Burnside. Here, by contrast, the songs are again parcelled out to the various voice types. There’s quite a lot about beer in these settings. Gone are the press gang, corsairs, gallant generals and wickedly glamorous highwaymen. Welcome instead Robin Hood cracking bottles merrily, Ploughmen knocking them back in the alehouse and brewers actually making the stuff (The Brewer, naturally). The settings, and the accompaniments, are bluffer and riper than in the 1912 collection. One men, two men is a kind of One Man went to mow song (the song goes up to twelve men with the same verse repeated) whilst Roderick Williams and pianist William Vann have jointly concocted four extra verses to The Brewer, as the original singer of this song only sang one verse to the collector. Incidentally it’s really only in Rolling in the Dew in this collection that we get an accent, from Mary Bevan, who incarnates the pretty fair maid whilst Roderick Williams - in metaphorical breeches and frock coat - maintains his educated vocal production, thus to emphasise the material and class difference between the two.

The last three songs mine nauticalia in the form of Sea Songs from The Motherland Song Book, Volume IV (1919). Spence sings two with chorus, notably the riotously jolly The Golden Vanity, complete with nautical accent, and Williams the last, The Spanish Ladies, which has a Gurney-like Hawk and Buckle air to it. This last has been released before on Albion ALBCD037 in their disc called The Song of Love but if fits here very well.

Production-wise the recording quality and booklet are up to the very high standard long established by Albion. The cover art is a striking, swirling, colour-drenched Yew Pine Mountain by Paula McHugh, a folklorically-infused American scene (West Sussex isn’t quite so colourful, doesn’t really do mountains, and doesn’t have the yew pine, though it does have yews). This is the kind of folk music disc critics are usually wont to advise listeners not to play through  ‘in one sitting’ but to take a few at a time. Well, not me, not here. The changing voice types, the nature of the accompaniments, the variety of themes, and the previously all-but-unknown nature of many of these settings encourages me to encourage you to listen straight through.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John Quinn

Folk-Songs of England, Book 5 "From Sussex" ed. C. Sharp (1912) [45:53]
No. 1 Bold General Wolfe [2:06]
No. 2 Low Down in the Broom [3:09]
No. 3 The Thresherman and the Squire [2:34]
No. 4 The Pretty Ploughboy [3:11]
No. 5 O Who Is That That Raps at My Window? [3:34]
No. 6 How Cold the Wind Doth Blow [5:30]
No. 7 Captain Grant [2:22]
No. 8 Farewell, Lads [4:54]
No. 9 Come, All You Worthy Christians [2:30]
No. 10 The Turkish Lady [2:53]
No. 11 The Seeds of Love [3:33]
No. 12 The Maid of Islington [3:08]
No. 13 Here’s Adieu to all Judges and Juries [2:18]
No. 14 Lovely Joan [4:11]
Six English Folk Songs (1935) [13:55]
Mary Bevan (soprano), William Vann (piano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Roderick Williams
No. 1 Robin Hood and the Pedlar [3:41]
No. 2 The Ploughman [1:41]
No. 3 One Man, Two Men [1:54]
No. 4 The Brewer [1:46]
No. 5 Rolling in the Dew [2:07]
No. 6 King William [2:46]
Sea Songs from The Motherland Song Book, Volume IV (1919) [8:41]
The Golden Vanity [2:44]
Just as the Tide Was Flowing [3:13]
The Spanish Ladies [2:39]

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