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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. June 2020, Henry Wood Hall, London except November-December 2018, Potton Hall, Suffolk (tracks 1, 6 and 8) and January 2021, West Road Concert Hall, Cambridge (track 16)
Texts included
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD044 [60:01]

Albion’s Vaughan Williams Folk Songs series will take four volumes to complete. This is the third and it maintains the excellent standard set in the previous volumes (review of Volume 1) though this time the singers aren’t accompanied on a song or two by the violin, as they were in the first two releases. Something else that will gladden hearts is the fact that so many of these songs are heard in première recordings – fifteen out of twenty-one, in fact.

Folk Songs from the Eastern Counties is the earliest set in the series. Published in 1908, all the songs were collected by Vaughan Williams himself during his visits to East Anglia and the results appeared in the second volume of Cecil Sharp’s Folk Songs of England series. Bushes and Briars is famously the song that inspired VW to become a collector of folk song and it takes pride of place as the first song in the collection and is beautifully sung by Roderick Williams. I’ll note here that this song, The Lark in the Morning and The Captain’s Apprentice were recorded in the rather billowy acoustic of Potton Hall, and originally released on Albion ALBCD038, whereas the remainder of the collection was recorded, several years later, in the significantly drier acoustic of Henry Wood Hall. Played sequentially this is rather disconcerting – I much prefer the Henry Wood Hall session – but it’s not so much of a concern if you dip into individual songs, which is more than likely the way you’d listen.

Other highlights of this fifteen-song collection are the richly sung As I Walked Out (Nicky Spence on excellent form) with its spare piano accompaniment, the ‘redacted’ version of The Lark in the Morning and the sequence of muscular nauticalia to be encountered. For example, there’s the bouncy accompaniment to On Board a Ninety-Eight, played with infectious brio by William Vann, a song that VW suggested should have an unaccompanied first verse, a suggestion spurned here. The question of the extent to which folk songs should be accompanied at all was always a vexed one – the purists of the time preferred the voice only as the ultimate expression of the truth of the folk song. VW seemed to compromise to the extent of recommending some verses be sung thus, but performers are free to go their own way. Bold young farmers, pirates, robbers, lost ladies and those that die-for-love (see the death ballad The Sheffield Apprentice, a young man cruelly framed by his Mistress) form the kernel of this collection but there’s a rarity in the case of The Saucy Bold Robber, a song that’s seldom encountered.

There are two songs from The Motherland Song Book, Volume 3, published in 1919 and you’ll need to double-back to volume 1 of Albion’s series to find VW’s contribution to Book 4. All these songs were sea songs and in volume 3 Roderick Williams and a chorus do full justice to We Be Three Poor Mariners and especially to the rumbunctious The Arethusa, a song about sticking it to the French navy, complete with Williams’ mimicking Gallic accent (‘zat cannot be!’). The three songs from The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs were published the year after VW’s death. Mary Bevan sings Salisbury Plain excellently in a kind of idealised version of a folk song setting, with very sparse piano accompaniment that allows the singer largely to take the burden of the song. We all know Banks of Green Willow from George Butterworth, but it’s heard here in the version collected by Cecil Sharp in 1904 and set to piano accompaniment with great subtlety by Vaughan Williams.

The one occasion when voices fall silent is when Vann plays Twelve Traditional Country Dances, published in 1931. These infectious and charming dances hide a tortuous genesis. They were collected by Maud Karpeles who, like Sharp (actually credited with collecting two of the dances), was one of the pioneers of ethnological research in Britain and indeed beyond, as she found some survivals in Vermont and, in particular, in that great redoubt of English and Celt folklore, Newfoundland. VW wrote the piano accompaniments for Karpeles who didn’t much like them, and correspondence went back and forth, VW in his usual serio-comically blunt way apologising for his work, to which Karpeles replied in turn by apologising for her ‘pernicketiness’. Anyway, they’re very charming, as I said, and you might even be able to dance to them, if you feel so moved, though I think you’d prefer an accordion and a drink-sodden inn for that.

This marvellous series is full of discovery and a genuine sense of engagement with the medium. When we have the final volume we’ll have a compact body of foundational folklore that will prove of enduring value to the VW lover.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: John Quinn

Contents
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, for piano solo (1931) [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 3 (1919)
We be Three Poor Mariners [1:11]
The Arethusa [2:24]

Chorus of Helen Ashby and Kate Ashby (sopranos); Cara Curran (alto); Benedict Hymas (tenor); James Arthur and Nicholas Ashby (basses)



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