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Shropshire lad CDHLL7559
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A Shropshire Lad
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Hallé/Sir Mark Elder
rec. 2022, Hallé St Peter’s, Manchester
Texts included
HALLÉ CDHLL7559 [73]

For some years now Roderick Williams has been a pre-eminent baritone interpreter of British song. He has taken over the mantle of John Shirley-Quirk, Benjamin Luxon and latterly Thomas Allen amongst others and his recordings are a touchstone of beautiful and intelligent singing. What I had not realised was just how active Williams had been in the area of arranging much of this repertoire for orchestral accompaniment. The bulk of the songs arranged here were prepared for a variety of ensembles and concerts since 2017 although Williams did arrange the Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad for strings alone back in 2011. What is not completely clear is whether the new full orchestral cycle offered here is a reworking of the earlier version or wholly original.

Important to say straight away these are genuinely fine arrangements of impressive settings quite beautifully sung. Mark Elder and the Hallé are on top form and the engineering from Steve Portnoi at the orchestra’s home St. Peters is very fine indeed. In my recent survey of the same artists’ cycle of Vaughan Williams Symphonies I found some of the recordings to be too diffuse and distanced – not so here with the balance between voice and orchestra and within the orchestra nigh on perfect. Of course, Williams’ clarity of diction and sensitivity to the text has always been superb and so it is again here. The booklet does offer full texts [in English only] but they are surplus to requirements as far as comprehending the words goes. Also, Williams is excellent at pointing words without making the pointing sounded mannered or affected. Interesting to note that he achieves much the same effect of subtle underlining of meaning with his orchestrations.

Although the disc is titled “A Shropshire Lad” – to encourage sales one presumes – in fact only the Butterworth cycle are settings of Housman so literally just over 14 minutes of a generously filled disc that runs to 72:46. Of course the two familiar sets here; the aforementioned Butterworth and Vaughan Williams’ early The House of Life are well-known and wonderful. But a particular joy of this disc is the wider riches it offers. Yes we do get Ireland alongside the two composers just mentioned but the songs I did not previously know by the likes of Ina Boyle, Ruth Gipps, Madeleine Dring and Rebecca Clarke are substantial discoveries in terms of quality and worth.

But to focus on the most famous settings first. The disc opens with a pair of John Ireland settings. First is Great Things written in 1925. This was Ireland’s first setting of Thomas Hardy and it is a bluff and hearty strophic song and to be honest sounds more like an Eric Coates Chappell ballad of Stonecracker John ilk rather than the usually inward looking Ireland. From the outset Williams’ orchestrations are effective and attractive. They can be quite “busy” with a lot of instrumental detail and musical elaboration. That said they are also relatively traditional in that they retain the spirit and style of the time the original songs were written – they do not seek to shine any contemporary light onto either music or words. One of Ireland’s more famous works is his setting of John Masefield’s Sea Fever. This was the disc title given to the previous version Williams recorded with orchestral accompaniment on Dutton conducted by Martin Yates. The arranger there was John Gerrard Williams who died in 1947 but was a prolific arranger. In this new version Williams’ voice is a fraction weightier and he opts for a very similar pensive interpretation although in the 2007 recording both Williams and the arrangement inject greater urgency into the third verse which I probably prefer.

George Butterworth’s Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ remains one of the archetypal British 20th Century song cycles. The way in which both words and music skirt the edge and atmosphere of folksong yet stay art-song at the same time is genius. No surprise that the classical music community – and none more so than Vaughan Williams – mourned Butterworth’s death late in World War I. As mentioned, this is Williams’ second arrangement of the music but his first to be recorded. There are two other orchestrations available. The earlier dates from 1989 and was another/similar collection of British songs for Baritone and orchestra. It had the title “If I had dreams to sell” and was on Chandos with Stephen Varcoe accompanied by Richard Hickox and his City of London Sinfonia. I revisited this disc for the purpose of this review and I must admit I had forgotten how good it was. The only overlaps are the complete Butterworth cycle and three of the six songs from The House of Life. For the Housman cycle Varcoe and Hickox used the orchestration by Lance Baker – another neat link with this new disc; Baker was Ruth Gipps’ son – a fact Williams acknowledges by dedicating his arrangement of Gipps’ The Pulley on this disc to Baker. Baker’s orchestrations are really very good indeed – emphasising simplicity over sophistication. If pushed I would probably take them over Williams’ although there are many effective details here – a soft tam tam marking death in Is my team ploughing, a wood block underlining the dancing feet in Think no more lad and numerous instances of impressionistic harp writing in Williams’ orchestra. Both Varcoe and Williams sing with exceptional tonal beauty and engagement with word and music. The third orchestration was part of a very fine survey of Butterworth’s music on BIS in 2016 with Kriss Russman conducting the BBC NOW with baritone James Rutherford. Russman also provided the orchestration both for the cycle and some other works on the disc so he is something of an expert on the composer. To be honest that is also a very good performance and arrangement and I would be loath to be without any of the three versions.

The other main set of songs is the previously mentioned The House of Life. I recently reviewed this in its original voice and piano version; The Shropshire Lad cycle also featured. As I wrote in that review; “with the House of Life Vaughan Williams sought to create a sequence which can be treated as “aspects of love”. His musical treatments are fascinating – especially retrospectively – as he can be seen trying to find a balance between the musical and emotional sensibilities of the recently finished Victorian Age and his own instinct to experiment with something more impressionistic and influenced by folksong.” Here, as quite often across the disc, Williams thickens the textures by giving instruments arpeggiated figurations when the keyboard original is altogether plainer. This certainly animates the settings but perhaps at the cost of simplicity. In the cycle’s second – and most famous – song Silent Noon Williams, does keep to the original unaffected writing and I do feel the song benefits from that. On the Varcoe disc Maurice Johnstone (1900-1976) provides the arrangements for Love-Sight, Silent Noon and Heart’s Haven only. They make an interesting contrast to Williams’ versions. Johnstone opts for a simple almost austere strings and discreet harp against Williams’ full orchestra. Certainly as sung performances here I clearly prefer Williams’ tonal variety and lyrical line. Varcoe is still very good but perhaps not quite as convincing as in the Butterworth cycle. Again, as I mentioned in my previous review of this work it sits right on the stylistic cusp of Vaughan Williams seeking – and finding – his truly individual voice. The advance he would make in just one year in his Songs of Travel is remarkable. But what Williams does well is embrace the stylistic melodrama of the cycle. The benefit of setting the complete cycle is the variety this affords Williams as both performer and arranger and certainly the value to the collector is having this as the first complete orchestrated version of the cycle.

But if the two cycles form the mainstays of this collection, many of the most treasurable gems reside in the less well-known single songs. Alongside Butterworth there are two more songs by “lads who will never be old”. Both William Denis Browne’s To Gratania Dancing and Singing and Ernest Farrar’s Silent Noon [setting the same Rossetti text as Vaughan Williams] are familiar from other song recitals in their original piano accompanied form. Stephen Varcoe sang the latter as one of the composer’s Op.10 Vagabond Songs on the Hyperion 2-disc set “War’s Embers”. This is an intensely moving setting beautifully sung and one of Williams’ most effective arrangements. Farrar was Gerald Finzi’s teacher and perhaps it is wishful thinking to hear some of the teacher’s legacy in the pupil’s music. How well this setting compares with Vaughan Williams’ much more famous version is a poignant reminder of so much potential as well as life that was lost in the bloodbath of World War I. The choice of this as the final song in this recital is powerful and effective. Christopher Maltman sings Browne’s setting of the 17th century poet Richard Lovelace’s text as part of another valuable Hyperion song recital disc. Browne is best remembered for his friendship with Rupert Brooke, with his musical legacy very small. The example recorded here is probably his best known song and again receives a fine performance although this arrangement is one where I feel Williams risks making the accompaniment too busy and full – the simple tolling-bell chordal dignity of the original piano version all the more powerful for its simplicity.

Another sub-group in the overall programme are a set of arrangements Williams made of songs by women composers who either studied with or knew Vaughan Williams. Ina Boyle’s The Joy of Earth is one of the briefest songs here – just 1:58 but it is a genuine discovery and benefits from a sparkling arrangement by Williams. He omits the full strings but retains a solo violin which plays a surgingly Romantic accompaniment to the sung melody. The song dates from 1914 which predates Boyle’s studies with Vaughan Williams. The mood of the song is again rather heated in the manner of the Chappell Ballads but as such the performance and arrangement suit that mood perfectly. In the midst of so much excellence I must admit Madeleine Dring’s Shakespeare setting Take, O take those lips away is attractive but teeters on the edge of a kind of lilting pastoral pastiche that is charming but without the top-drawer quality of so much else offered here. Especially when directly compared to Ruth Gipps’ The pulley and even more so Rebecca Clarke’s The seal man. Both of these composers seem to be undergoing a period of deserved reappraisal and on the strength of these two songs it is clearly deserved. The poet is George Herbert of Five Mystical Songs fame and Gipps set this poem as one of her Four Baritone Songs in 1939. As Andrew Burn puts it in his illuminating liner note, Gipps uses a powerful yet austere chromatic harmony that Williams underlines in his arrangement by scoring it for strings alone. This is certainly one of the most powerful songs presented here. But even that is topped by the remarkable dramatic scena that is Rebecca Clark’s The seal man. This is the longest single song on the disc running to 6:09 and is a setting of an excerpt from a John Masefield short story. Burns mentions in the liner that Williams’ choices in his arrangement were influenced by the performances he was giving at the time of music by James McMillan. According to Williams this in part explains his use of “the atmospheric timbres of harp, vibraphone and celeste”. Certainly this song draws from Williams his most wide ranging and complex arrangement. Elsewhere where I might have passing concerns about too much music texture and effect, here I think his instrumental and timbral choices are excellent and they combine with Masefield’s haunting text and Williams superb ‘acting’ of the song to make this for me the highlight of a disc already full of memorable moments. I had never heard the song before but I see that the website devoted to the composer describes it as “arguably the greatest of Clarke’s vocal works” – I am not about to disagree.

There is one last song to mention. James Burton’s When I set out for Lyonesse which is another Hardy setting. Burton is not a name I knew but he served as Choral Director of the Hallé Choir from 2002 – 2009. Great credit to him as a composer that in such exalted company his succinct and witty setting is such a success. Burns neatly describes Williams’ arrangement as “[bringing] out the music’s puckish aspects” which is exactly right. Again Williams chooses quite unusual/characterful instrumentations to underline the “magic in my eyes” the narrator in the song describes. Williams recorded the better-known Finzi version (No.2 of his Earth and Air and Rain cycle) but that setting is more straight-forward in its burly marching directness (a quality Benjamin Luxon brings out to great effect in his performance of the cycle). Burton in contrast adds a twinkle and something slightly subversive which Williams highlights both in his arrangement and also his singing. For some reason, each time I heard this song my first thought was the march of the huntsmen after they had caught the wolf in Peter and the Wolf! This is a genuinely charming and effective song.

Roderick Williams’ commitment to the rich heritage of British song was already proven beyond doubt. I am sure that the act of arranging the music performed here has deepened and refined both his appreciation of this repertoire and his performing response to it. With 72:36 minutes of some of the finest examples of English song, performed with exceptional insight and sensitivity in these impressive new arrangements this is a wholly enjoyable disc from first to last. Of course, the question immediately arises about the songs and composers not included so I would like to think Roderick Williams can be tempted into a volume 2.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John Quinn (November 2022)

Orchestrations by Roderick Williams
John Ireland: Great Things
John Ireland: Sea Fever
Ina Boyle: The Joy of Earth
William Denis Browne: To Gratiana dancing and singing
George Butterworth: Six Songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’
Ruth Gipps: The pulley
Ralph Vaughan Williams: The House of Life
Madeleine Dring: Take, O take those lips away
James Burton: When I set out for Lyonesse
Rebecca Clarke: The seal man
Ernest Farrar: Silent noon

Published: November 25, 2022

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