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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Folk Songs - Volume 1
Mary Bevan (soprano); Nicky Spence (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone)
Jack Liebeck (violin)
William Vann (piano)
rec. 2020, Henry Wood Hall, London
Texts included

This is the first of four discs containing all 80 of VW’s arrangements of folk songs for voice and piano or violin. All the songs were set down at the sessions in June 2020 which produced the present selection and the remaining three discs are to be issued at six-monthly intervals; the last one is planned for release in Spring 2022 to coincide with the celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. I learned from the press release accompanying this disc that some 75% of the folksongs have not been previously recorded and this CD itself contains no less than 15 first recordings among the 23 tracks.

I was well aware of VW’s passion for English folk songs. What I didn’t fully appreciate was that his interest extended to songs from further afield. So, future releases in this series will include not only songs collected by him or by others in the Eastern Counties (1908) but also songs which were collected in the Appalachian Mountains (ca 1938) and songs from Newfoundland (1946).

There can be snags with presenting a folk song with a piano accompaniment. For one thing, the opportunity for textural variety that can be achieved in a choral setting isn’t available. Furthermore, the setting can become a bit repetitive unless the arranger is tempted into fairly elaborate piano accompaniments – as Benjamin Britten was wont to do. Much, then, rides on the sensitivity and imagination of the artists, Happily, here and throughout the programme, all three singers engage the listener’s attention through skilled and communicative singing while William Vann’s piano accompaniments always seem to inject just the right degree of colour. In two of the Sussex songs VW added a violin part and, on both occasions, Jack Liebeck provides a welcome extra dimension. In one of the songs, and in two of the Sea Songs from The Motherland VW also involved a small choir. The chorus parts are quite modest in scope but the singers add interest to the setting. A glance at the list of the six names who were engaged for this assignment shows that Albion Records recruited some fine singers and they make a very good contribution.

The present volume opens with twelve Folk Songs from Sussex. I learned from the comprehensive booklet that all of these were collected by W. Percy Merrick (1869-1953). Between 1899 and 1901 Merrick collected some 60 songs which he heard sung by a Sussex farmer, Henry Hills (1831-1901). Fifteen of these songs formed the contents of Book V in Novello’s ‘Folk Songs of England’ series; VW wrote piano accompaniments to fourteen of these songs.

Folk Songs from Sussex contains some fine specimens of the genre and here they’ve been discerningly divided between the three singers. Roderick Williams gets proceedings off to a sturdy start with Bold General Wolfe, a song about the British commander who died in 1759 when the British troops were battling for Quebec against French troops commanded, if memory serves me correctly, by General Montcalm. Low Down in the Broom provides immediate contrast. It’s a gentle, poignant song which features a delicate piano part. Nicky Spence sings it nicely and at the end of each stanza the little choir joins in to pleasing effect. We don’t hear from Mary Bevan until Who is that that Raps at My Window? The song is divided between a daughter (Bevan), her father (Williams) and her lover (Spence). The use of three voices enables the setting to be well characterised. VW’s piano accompaniment is quite elaborate; the writing is shimmering until the last verse.

I’ve heard How Cold the Wind doth Blow before. It was included on an earlier Albion release, Purer than Pearl. Then, as now, Mary Bevan sang it beautifully (review). This time the song is presented, most effectively, as a dialogue between her and Nicky Spence. This song also involves - from the third verse onwards – a violin, and Jack Liebeck’s playing adds to the poignancy of the performance of this beautiful song. Captain Grant offers excellent contrast. Here, Roderick Williams offers a characterful rendition of the story of a highwayman who went to the gallows in 1816; the song itself presents Grant as a rogue who was, perhaps, more loveable in the public imagination than his deeds deserved.

Mary Bevan, again combining with Jack Liebeck, has another plum in the shape of The Seeds of Love. This song portrays the exquisite melancholy of lost love. The piano accompaniment is subtly varied. The melodic line is tender and lovely; it’s tailor made for Mary Bevan. The collection closes with Lovely Joan. VW worked this tune into his opera Sir John in Love and from thence into the central section of his Fantasia on Greensleeves. It’s a memorable melody and it’s not hard to see why the composer regarded it so highly. Nicky Spence relates the story very well.

Albion have issued a previous recording of Six English Folk Songs. It was included in an album entitled On Christmas Day: Folk songs and folk carols by the baritone Derek Welton and pianist Iain Burnside (ALBCD013). I’ve heard that disc, though we don’t appear to have reviewed it on MusicWeb. A different approach is taken here with the songs divided between the three soloists and I think the greater variety provided by different voices works better. Robin Hood and the Pedlar is an amusing piece of whimsy: the famous outlaw attempts to rob a pedlar and they fight but then discover they are cousins and the tale ends with them carousing in the pub! I enjoyed Mary Bevan’s account of this implausible escapade. The Ploughman offers a jolly and idealised view of the life of a ploughman. It’s deftly sung by Nicky Spence. VW’s arrangement tells the tale in a jaunty fashion and as I listened, I couldn’t help but wonder if the original singers would have delivered it so nimbly. I was entertained by The Brewer (A Brewer without any Barm). I wouldn’t have known the meaning of ‘Barm’ but it is helpfully explained in the notes; it’s the yeasty foam that forms on the top of beer as it ferments. Only one verse of the original text survives so Roderick Williams and William Vann have authored four more. I won’t spoil the surprise of their last verse! All six of these songs are engaging and the performances they receive are equally engaging.

The Motherland Song Book, published under the auspices of ‘The League of the Arts for National and Civic Ceremony’, was a collection that ran to four volumes. VW contributed items to all four publications, including five songs for voice and piano, three of which are performed here; we are promised the other two later in Albion’s survey. The Golden Vanity and Just as the Tide was Flowing are both sung by Nicky Spence with support from the Chorus. The latter is probably the best-known tune of all those heard on this disc, and for good reason. VW’s piano part is a winning one and he also gives the choir more to do than elsewhere in this album. The final item on the programme, The Spanish Ladies, was previously included on an earlier Albion release, The Song of Love (review). It’s entirely appropriate to include the recording again here for the sake of completeness. Its inclusion is also fully justified because Roderick Williams’ rousing performance is a fine way to end the disc.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable disc. As John Francis says in his excellent notes – and I paraphrase his comments - these song arrangements have suffered neglect because they fell between two stools: singers rarely included them in art-song recitals, while many traditional folk singers preferred not to sing their selections to the accompaniment of piano. The neglect of these songs in the recital room is, I think, very disappointing. VW’s piano accompaniments may not be very elaborate – and thank goodness for that – but the piano parts are never dull and the melodies which they support are invariably excellent. Britten’s folk song arrangements are often included in song recitals but, for my taste, the accompaniments are often too ‘clever’ and risk overwhelming the song whereas VW allowed this eloquent traditional music to speak for itself. Maybe the appearance of his arrangements on CD will increase awareness of them: I hope so.

The songs on this present disc could scarcely receive better advocacy. All three singers enter fully into the spirit of the songs and sing them with commitment and, as you’d expect, a high degree of skill. Occasionally, they deliver the songs in appropriately rustic accents but this touch is never overdone. They treat the songs with the respect they deserve and, my goodness, does it pay off. William Vann accompanies expertly throughout.

Engineer Deborah Spanton has recorded the performers most sympathetically and, as I indicated earlier, the documentation is first class.

I enjoyed this disc from start to finish. It’s an auspicious beginning to the series which will bring us all of VW’s solo-voice folk song arrangements. I am keen to hear the next three releases as they appear.

John Quinn

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby (sopranos); Cara Curran (alto); Benedict Hymans (tenor); James Arthur, Nicholas Ashby (basses)

Folk Songs from Sussex (1912)
Bold General Wolfe
Low Down in the Broom
The Thresherman and the Squire
The Pretty Ploughboy
Who is that that Raps at My Window?
How Cold the Wind doth Blow
Captain Grant
Farewell Lads
Come, All You Worthy Christians
The Turkish Lady
The Seeds of Love
The Maid of Islington
Here’s Adieu to all Judges and Juries
Lovely Joan
Six English Folk Songs (1935)
Robin Hood and the Pedlar
The Ploughman
One Man, Two Men
The Brewer (A Brewer without any Barm)
Rolling in the Dew
King William
Sea Songs from The Motherland Song Book, Vol IV (1919)
The Golden Vanity
Just as the Tide was Flowing
The Spanish Ladies.

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