Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Four Hymns (1914)
The House of Life (1904)
The saucy bold robber
Harry the tailor
On Wenlock Edge (1909)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Julius Drake (piano)
Timothy Ridout (viola)
rec. 2020, Church of St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London
HYPERION CDA68378 
This collection is made up of three early works plus three folk song settings. The Four Hymns is not a work I know well, and I have been happy to get to know it better thanks to this fine recording. Nicky Spence is suitably exalted in the ‘hosannas’ of the first song, and indeed has the full measure of a work that is difficult to render convincingly, if only because of the breadth and density of its texts from four different sources. The forceful playing of Timothy Ridout adds to the success of a performance that rightly eschews pastoral calm whilst also avoiding too much in the way of religious ecstasy. The musical language is recurrently modal, to the point that the tonality of the second song, nominally in F minor, is frequently ambiguous. The three performers execute to perfection the swinging, perhaps rather relentless, passacaglia that is the final song.
Silent Noon, composed in 1903, has become one of Vaughan Williams’s most widely known and loved songs. The following year he completed five other settings of sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and, placing Silent Noon among them, constructed the cycle The House of Life. In Silent Noon the composer had found a poem whose depiction of a still, hot landscape, lent itself to musical setting. His response to the words is masterly, the music matching perfectly the atmosphere evoked by the text. If the other songs can seem pale by comparison, the texts chosen might explain why. It is difficult to imagine how a composer might convincingly accompany, or even enhance, such unpromising lines as ‘One flame-winged brought a white-winged harp player/Even where my lady and I lay all alone’; or yet, ‘There came an image in Life’s retinue/That had Love’s wings and bore his gonfalon’. The melodic lines are less immediately memorable, and Frances Pott’s excellent booklet note memorably points out that much of the accompaniment writing has a ‘sense of an orchestra waiting in the wings’. None the less there are many lovely passages to enjoy, and even more that anticipate the riches that were to come. The final song, ‘Love’s last gift’, achieves almost as much sense of purpose as Silent Noon, with an opening melodic phrase that Vaughan Williams lovers will recognise from its use in several later works. Nicky Spence delivers a loving (and lovely) performance, with some particularly attractive quiet singing. All the texts are printed in the booklet, but the listener does not need them, so clearly does Spence project them. (They are useful later, though, the Rossetti sonnets in particular, as reading them in tranquillity does contribute to one’s appreciation of the work.) Spence produces a lovely sound, with only the occasional touch of strain in higher and louder passages. He varies his tone with great skill to underline the meaning of the words. Julius Drake’s playing is just as varied and just as skilful at conveying the sense of Vaughan Williams’s sometimes ungrateful piano writing.
Nicky Spence has made an important contribution to the series of Vaughan Williams’s folk song arrangements that have been issued by Albion Records. Here, as a kind of intermezzo, he treats us to spirited performances of three more. Two of them, certainly, would not have figured among my choices, but other listeners will surely differ. The piano parts complement the songs well, and Vaughan Williams even contrives a moment of comedy in one of them. I rarely feel comfortable when singers employ regional accents, but Spence does it better than most. Singer and pianist alike have lavished as much care on these songs as they have the rest of the programme.
We have here, then, a fine Vaughan Williams collection, but the performance of On Wenlock Edge, in which Spence and Drake are joined by the superb Piatti Quartet, is the finest of all. The gale blows dramatically in the first song, and the lovely second song, ‘From far, from eve and morning’, in which the piano and quartet never play together, receives a beautifully pensive performance with, in particular, a most eloquent use of silence. Vaughan Williams was rightly scathing about Housman’s lines ‘The goal stands up, the keeper stands up to keep the goal’, to the point that when he set ‘Is my team ploughing?’ he omitted them. The muted strings produce a sound that in itself might be coming from the grave, a sound that Spence, a consummate vocal actor, perfectly matches. I don’t believe I have ever heard the two friends’ increasing anguish in the final verse expressed as well as it is here. The Piatti Quartet has so far led us to expect something exceptional from ‘Bredon Hill’, and we are not disappointed. Listeners can almost feel the shimmering heat as they view the ‘coloured counties’; exquisite string sonorities are perfectly complemented by Julius Drake, with beautifully voiced chords produced from an instrument in which, so it seems, hammers striking strings plays no part. The Quartet’s tone when the story enters its tragic, wintery phase is more than chilling. Does the passing bell begin to toll too loudly? Maybe it does, but as life moves on and Vaughan Williams opens out the texture these performers respond with masterly skill. This is a truly great performance of a work that has been lucky on record. The trudging steps at the end of ‘Clun’ bring to an end a collection that no Vaughan Williams enthusiast should miss.
Previous review: Jim Westhead (April 2022)
Published: October 12, 2022