Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Folk Songs Volume 2
Mary Bevan (soprano); Nicky Spence (tenor); Roderick Williams (baritone); Thomas Gould (violin)
William Vann (piano)
rec. 4-5 January 2016, Potton Hall, Suffolk; 7-11 June 2020, Henry Wood Hall, London
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD043 [56:22]
In autumn 2020 I reviewed Volume 1 of Albion Records’ projected four-volume series which will include all of Vaughan Williams’ folk song settings for (mainly) solo voice. Now, here is the promised second volume. With two exceptions, all the items on this programme were recorded – strictly observing social distancing rules, as a booklet photo demonstrates – in June 2020 during the Covid emergency in the UK. The exceptions were the Two English Folk Songs for voice & violin. These recordings, by Nicky Spence and Thomas Gould, were recorded in 2016 and have already been issued on the album entitled Purer than Pearl. They have been “recycled” here in order to make the present project as complete as possible and I’m very glad they have. I liked both settings when I reviewed the original album but, if anything, I like them even more now. The Lawyer is a jaunty, effective arrangement but the real prize is Searching for Lambs. This is such a haunting melody in the first place, but VW enriches it immeasurably through the addition of a chaste, pure independent violin part. The instrumental part is, frankly, inspired and it demonstrates VW’s great empathy for folksongs, especially since the violin never steals our attention away from the vocal line but, rather, complements and enhances it. Beautifully performed by Spence and Gould, it’s one of the highlights of this present collection.
Vaughan Williams is justly celebrated for his lifelong connection with British folk songs. Less well known, though, is that on occasion his perceptive gaze reached, at least figuratively, beyond these shores. His set of Nine English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachian Mountains is fascinating. He didn’t collect the songs himself; that work was done by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles on expeditions to the USA between 1916 and 1918. Nowadays, in the age of jet travel and the network of highways in the US, such trips may not seem so remarkable. However, the enterprise and adventure of Sharp and Karpeles in making these expeditions in the early years of the twentieth century should not be underestimated. The transatlantic voyage could be arduous enough, but the vast geographical expanse of the Appalachian Mountains must have been dauntingly remote in those days. Undeterred, these intrepid collectors set off in pursuit of folk songs. Intriguingly, though, if the selection set by VW is typical, what Sharp and Karpeles found was not so much completely original material as variants on folk melodies and words that were also well known to them from the work of collectors, themselves included, in the British Isles. John Francis’s absorbing notes make us aware of the British originals of many of these songs. I presume that these songs must have been brought to the Appalachians by British settlers – or their descendants – and then were part of the development of a local tradition in the isolated rural expanse of the mountains. Thus it is, for example, that we find an Appalachian variant of the well-known sad tale of Barbara Allen but sung to a different tune. VW selected nine of the huge number of songs that Sharp and Karpeles collected and made these arrangements in about 1938. However, they lay unpublished until 1967. Were they ever performed in the composer’s lifetime, I wonder; if not, it’s a pity.
Some of these settings are a bit on the repetitive side, notwithstanding the skill of William Vann and the three singers - The Tree in the Wood and John Randolph are cases in point. On the other hand, Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor, though it extends to twelve verses – and six more were omitted on this recording! – does not become repetitive. In part this is due to the skill of Roderick Williams and William Vann. However, an excellent interpretative decision was also made: VW furnished two different piano accompaniments and Vann decided to use both of them in this performance, thereby adding welcome variety: the combination of the two works really well. This is one of the songs where I think listeners will be struck by how ‘British’ the melody sounds. The Lovers’ Tasks, in which Mary Bevan and Nicky Spence each sing some verses is interesting in that the words are cut from the same cloth as the famous song Scarborough Fair, albeit the tunes are different. The melody arranged here by VW is gentle and touching.
Another song which caught my ear was Fair Margaret and Sweet William. On the face of it, thirteen verses, all sung to the same melody, might seem a recipe for repetitiveness. However, VW has other ideas. His piano part, though sparing, is inspired in the way it provides variety while allowing the vocal line to flourish. I found this to be a poignant setting, thanks in no small measure to the compelling performance by Mary Bevan and William Vann. The last of the set, The Twelve Apostles is a perky setting which Nicky Spence and Roderick Williams do as a duet. Wisely, some verses are omitted in what would otherwise be a long song. Spence and Williams give a highly entertaining account of it.
The programme concludes with items from A Selection of Collected Folk Songs Volume 1. I learned from the notes that a copy of this collaborative venture between Cecil Sharp and VW was acquired by the British Museum in 1917 but may date from as early as 1914. The collection consists of 36 arrangements, of which eight were by VW; all of his contributions are included here. These are essentially simpler arrangements than anything heard on the rest of the CD; in each case, the arrangement of the first verse then serves for all the remaining ones. Simpler the arrangements may be, but I think the effect of this simplicity – and therefore VW’s genius – is that his arrangements allow these excellent tunes to speak for themselves.
That said, since each arrangement utilises the same musical material over several verses, the performers need to bring skill and imagination to their performances in order to hold the listener’s attention. Happily, the present performers are ideally suited to meet this requirement. So, for example, in The Painful Plough Roderick Williams has a tale to tell of a ploughman and a gardener making their cases for why each considers that his respective profession is the more important (spoiler alert: the ploughman wins, hands down). Williams, aided and abetted by William Vann, gives a thoroughly engaging performance and though the music of each verse is identical I never experienced a feeling of ‘déjà vu all over again’. Mary Bevan is equally engaging in the ‘question and answer’ dialogue that is My Boy Billy. I also like her way with The Female Highwayman. This is a story of a woman who poses as a highwayman to rob her lover. Is she testing him? If so, then, happily, he passes the test and all ends well.
The programme concludes with Farmyard Song. As John Francis observes, this bears a close kinship to Aaron Copland’s effervescent setting of ‘I bought me a cat’ in his Old American Songs. Here, the singer is Nicky Spence with farmyard noises courtesy of Mary Bevan. Through social media I’d already learned before I received this disc that that the performers struggled to get through the recording because so many bouts of laughing disrupted the proceedings. Happily, they eventually managed to keep their faces straight for just long enough to end the disc with this hilarious performance.
There’s a great deal to enjoy in this second instalment of folk song arrangements by Vaughan Williams. The tunes themselves are fine ones and VW’s sympathy for and delight in his material is never in doubt. The performances are consistently excellent. The performers pay these settings the compliment of treating them with as much seriousness as they would bring to, say, Lieder by Schubert: they are right to do so. The recordings have been engineered by Deborah Spanton (Mike Clements was at the controls when the two songs for voice and violin were set down in 2016). The recorded sound is excellent throughout, with a particularly pleasing balance between singers and the piano. John Francis’s notes are a mine of valuable information about the songs and their origins; his style is eminently readable.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this second instalment of Albion’s survey of VW’s folk song arrangements. Now I have to be patient for six months until Volume 3 comes along.
Nine English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachian Mountains (c. 1938, published 1967)
The Rich Old Lady
The Tree in the Wood
Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor
The Lovers’ Tasks
Fair Margaret and Sweet William
The House Carpenter
The Twelve Apostles
Two English Folk Songs for voice & violin (c 1913, published 1935)
Searching for Lambs
A Selection of Collected Folk Songs Volume 1 (1917)
Down by the Riverside
I will give my Love an Apple
The Painful Plough
My Boy Billy
The Female Highwayman