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RVW songs CDA68378
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Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Four Hymns (1914) [15:01]
The House of Life (1904)
The Saucy Bold Robber [2:22]
Harry the Tailor [2:02]
The Brewer [1:56]
On Wenlock Edge (1909) [22:43]
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Julius Drake (piano)
Timothy Ridout (viola: Four Hymns)
Piatti Quartet (On Wenlock Edge)
rec. 2020, St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
HYPERION CDA68378 [69:50]

Perhaps Hyperion have issued this CD as part of the 150th Anniversary of RVW’s birth. If so, the commemoration is to be welcomed, and I hope to see many more recordings appearing from multiple record companies.

The Four Hymns do not seem to be a staple of Vaughan Williams’ vocal music recordings, and I don’t really see why, because they show the composer at his most memorable. Set for tenor with viola obbligato, the first song, a 17th Century poem seems to me to be fully mature and is largely declamatory in nature, the second is modal in character, whilst the third opens in a hushed manner that prefigures the beginning of the 3rd Symphony. The first and fourth songs both become impassioned, and require significant power from the tenor, and the first is a particular favourite of mine, ever since I first heard Ian Partridge’s fine EMI account.

The House of Life, settings of poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti who was a leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a painter. The most famous entry in the six piece cycle is Silent Noon, one of the composer’s most memorable songs, that seems to me to perfectly capture a summer day, but my favourite is Love’s Minstrels, in which RVW seems to be striving to break away to a freer style, and I wish that he had orchestrated it. Thomas Allen’s Virgin Classics recording, On the Idle Hill of Summer, is my favourite here, coupled with songs by Quilter and Butterworth, and it can be obtained very cheaply, second hand.

Of the three folk-songs, The saucy bold robber and Harry the tailor are taken from 15 Folk Songs from the Eastern Counties whilst The Brewer is from Six English folk songs of 1935. The booklet describes the influence of Folk Song on RVW’s music, and points out that his folk song output was no mere appendage to his music, but was truly integral to it. Unfortunately, I don’t find these three songs to be particularly inspiring melodically – too much to hope for another masterpiece like The Captain’s Apprentice.
The major work present here is the 1909 song cycle On Wenlock Edge, for tenor, piano and string quartet, a setting of poms by A.E.Houseman, and often recorded. It contains what, for me, is the most beautiful and memorable of RVW’s songs, From Far, from Eve and Morning. Its piano accompaniment is limpid and exquisitely supports the words, and I learned this poem by repeated listening on my car radio as a I drove to-and-from work. I recall being baffled by the phrases “and yon twelve-winded sky” and “ere to the wind’s twelve quarters”, and it took me some years to find out just what Houseman meant. Even the Houseman Society couldn’t help, and I had some pleasure in informing them of the meaning when my researches yielded fruit. Houseman was a very eminent classical scholar, and was undoubtedly aware that Ptolemy’s Graeco-Roman world map dating from the second century AD lists twelve wind directions, and names them after minor deities, the Venti.

The cycle as a whole demands significant vocal control from the tenor, on occasion he has to work to achieve the forte required, (Oh noisy bells be dumb, as well as showing mastery of vocal control in the pianissimo passages.

Tenor Nicky Spence copes well with all the works presented here, and has a much heftier voice than I am used to hearing, particularly in On Wenlock Edge, where Ian Partridge’s recording should be the sine qua non of any collection of English Song. Both Partridge and Spence rise to the challenge although both sound a mite strained at the above-mentioned climax, but Spence’s sensitivity to the words is first-rate and he indulges in some vibrato for expressive effect.

The other performers are uniformly excellent and are well-served by Hyperion’s recording. The booklet is very informative about the music and performers, and has poem texts in English.
Jim Westhead

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