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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Folk Songs - Volume 3
Mary Bevan (soprano); Nicky Spence (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone)
William Vann (piano)
Rec. 7-11 June 2020, Henry Wood Hall, London; 27 November – 1 December 2018, Potton Hall, Suffolk; 8 January 2021, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge
Texts included

Albion Records’ project to record all Vaughan Williams’ arrangements of folk songs for voice with piano or violin passed the half-way stage a little while ago; this is the third of the four planned volumes. I’ve already enjoyed the previous instalments (review ~ review) so I was eager to hear this disc too. A handful of items in previous volumes have been swept up from earlier Albion releases in the interests of completeness. That’s the case here too; three songs featuring Roderick Williams were first issued on the album Time and Space (review), namely Bushes and Briars, The Lark in the Morning and The Captain’s Apprentice. It’s very logical to include those recordings here as part of the complete collection entitled Folk Songs from the Eastern Counties. But if there’s a small amount of very justified recycling, on the other side of the coin, no fewer than 15 of the 21 tracks on this disc are first recordings.

Pride of place goes to Folk Songs from the Eastern Counties, a collection of fifteen song arrangements that VW published in 1908. The first six songs were collected in Essex; the next seven were unearthed in Norfolk; the final two were discovered in Cambridgeshire. The collection has the singular distinction that it includes the very first folk song that VW collected. On 4 December 1903 he collected Bushes and Briars from a local singer. He’d been fascinated by folk song for many years already but hearing this song was something of a coup de foudre, the implications of which had far-reaching and lifelong consequences for his music. As we shall see, he was working on folk songs right to the end of his life.

Small wonder that the haunting Bushes and Briars made such an impact. As VW suggested, Roderick Williams sings the first verse unaccompanied, after which William Vann joins in. Their sensitive performance and this wonderful tune are the perfect opener to the programme as a whole. Another melody which will be very familiar to listeners is The Captain’s Apprentice. VW collected the song in Norfolk in January 1905 and the following year he used it as the main theme for his orchestral Norfolk Rhapsody No 1. Here, it’s sung by Roderick Williams and it’s very good to hear what VW called a ‘remarkable tune’ in his original arrangement

Most of the fifteen Eastern Counties songs are sung by one of the two male singers. Mary Bevan contributes just two items but both are delightful and she sings them excellently. You might expect a song with the title A Bold Young Farmer to be a forthright affair but in fact it’s a melancholy tale and Mary Bevan gives a touching performance; the last verse is especially poignant. Geordie tells a sorry tale in which the eponymous hero comes to a sticky end. Ms Bevan’s performance really engages our sympathies.

All the other 13 songs are taken either by Roderick Williams or Nicky Spence. I’ve referenced some of Williams’ performances already – the others are equally excellent, displaying this fine singer’s ability to tell a story in a way that compels the listener’s attention. Spence has a comparable ability, as we discover in On Board a Ninety-Eight, a lively song in which an old man looks back on his seafaring career. Spence and William Vann deliver this song in a spirited fashion. They’re just as good in another seafaring song, Ward, the Pirate. In this sturdy number Spence brings the tale vividly to life. He’s just as good in more lyrical material, an example of which is As I Walked Out. It’s a lovely tune and Nicky Spence does it full justice.

I very much enjoyed this collection of songs from the Eastern Counties. There are some real gems here and VW did us a great service, not only by ensuring their survival but also by making such effective arrangements of them. All four musicians enter right into the spirit of the songs, bringing all of them to life.

The disc also includes a purely instrumental piece, Twelve Traditional Country Dances. The story behind this collection of short piano arrangements is related in the booklet essay. In brief, VW made the arrangements at the urging of Maud Karpeles. The set was explicitly intended for use by folk dancers and when published by Novello in 1931, the music was accompanied by detailed guidance as to dance steps etc. It would appear that VW didn’t relish the assignment and when he sent the finished material to Karpeles he didn’t hold back: ‘My spirit is quite broken!’ Given that the music was intended for dancing it’s unsurprising that the collection is a sequence of tunes which are all in quite brisk tempi. William Vann plays them in a sprightly fashion but, though the tunes themselves are quite jolly and VW’s arrangements are highly effective, the full sequence is perhaps a bit too much of a good thing. I found myself wishing for a bit of variety in tempo or mood – though that is in no way intended as a criticism of Vann’s excellent playing. I’m not sure I shall often return to this part of the album.

I mentioned earlier that after he had collected Bushes and Briars, folk song played a part in VW’s music for the rest of his life. In his last years he collaborated with a folk singer and collector, Albert Lloyd (1908-1982) on The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs, which was almost ready for publication when VW died – it appeared the following year. The two editors expressed a strong preference for folk songs to be sung unaccompanied but VW provided deliberately spare piano accompaniments for three songs, which are included here. Salisbury Plain, touchingly sung by Mary Bevan, relates a somewhat risqué story in which the girl’s lover comes to a tragic end – or gets his just deserts, according to your point of view. In his notes John Francis drily observes that the words would not have passed muster for publication in the early 1900s. All three of these arrangements are deliberately pared back, allowing the vocal melodies to speak for themselves.

On the first CD in this series, we heard three arrangements which VW contributed to a four-volume enterprise entitled The Motherland Song Book. Here are the other two, both sung by Roderick Williams. In both items he’s joined by the small chorus of six elite singers that Albion assembled for these sessions. The notes give the important caveat that these are not true folk songs; rather, VW made new arrangements based on traditional melodies. However, the pieces are based on very old sources and the music is fully in the spirit of folk song. I especially liked The Arethusa. You’ll recognise the tune; it was included in Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs (in which, if memory serves me correctly – it’s many years since I played in performances of the Fantasia - it was entitled ‘The Saucy Arethusa’). It’s good to hear the song itself. Roderick Williams tells the story in a very entertaining fashion – including a ‘cod’ French accent at times – and Cap’n Williams is enthusiastically supported by his six-strong ‘crew’, as well as by William Vann. A rollicking good time was had by all!

This is a thoroughly enjoyable disc. The piano solo strikes me as is a slight misfire but the songs themselves are a varied and unfailingly pleasing selection. Most of the recordings were made at the same sessions as the first two volumes so you’ll not be surprised to learn that the performance standards are entirely in keeping with those excellent earlier discs. So too is the recorded sound. John Francis’s booklet essay is, as ever, a mine of interesting and relevant information

If you’ve collected the first two volumes in this series, don’t hesitate to add this newcomer. We are promised Volume 4 early in 2022 which will mean that, as planned, the project will complete in the year that we celebrate the 150th anniversary of VW’s birth.

John Quinn

Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby (soprano); Cara Curran (alto); Benedict Hymas (tenor); James Arthur, Nicholas Ashby (bass)

Folk Songs from the Eastern Counties (1908)
Bushes and Briars [2:52]
Tarry Trowsers [0:57]
A Bold Young Farmer [2:40]
The Lost Lady Found [2:46]
As I Walked Out [2: 04]
The Lark in the Morning [1:27]
On Board a Ninety-Eight [2:49]
The Captain’s Apprentice [2:55]
Ward, the Pirate [3:06]
The Saucy Bold Robber [2:26]
The Bold Princess Royal [2:32]
The Lincolnshire Farmer [2:45]
The Sheffield Apprentice [4:11]
Geordie [3:27]
Harry, the Tailor [2:03]
Twelve Traditional Country Dances (1931) Piano solo [10:15]
The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs (1959)
Salisbury Plain [2:40]
Banks of Green Willow [1:50]
The Basket of Eggs [3:22]
The Motherland Song Book, Volume III (1919)
We be three poor mariners [1:11]
The Arethusa [2:24]