Ralph Vaughan Williams Folk Songs, Volume 1 Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, Roderick Williams, Jack Liebeck, Willian Vann ALBCD042
This is the first in a very welcome series of four discs containing the complete published folk songs collected and arranged by Vaughan Williams. Over half of this disc is taken up by the Folk Songs from Sussex of 1912. All three singers acquit themselves very well indeed – their style of singing is unaffected, as befits folk songs, and pianist William Vann provides the excellently sensitive piano line. The artists also throw themselves into the spirit of the songs, with, for instance, lovely accents from Roderick Williams in The Thresherman and the Squire. A couple of the songs have violin accompaniment too, but I found the tone of Jack Liebeck’s playing disappointingly thin and nasal. Six English Folk Songs of 1935 follow, with good (and amusing) accents from Mary Bevan in Rolling in the Dew. The disc concludes with three of the Sea Songs from The Motherland Song Book Vol. IV of 1919. The first two songs feature tenor and choir, but one of the choir members is rather flat, especially in The Golden Vanity (and less glaringly so in Just as the Tide was Flowing), and this does rather detract. The superb Roderick Williams gives the disc a fabulous ending with a wonderful performance of The Spanish Ladies. My only criticism is of the engineered sound. This, especially the piano, comes across as rather tinny, and there is an audibly different mix for the various sets of songs, with some a great deal drier than others — the listener should not be able to hear a difference in balance. But these are small gripes: this is a thoroughly enjoyable disc, and an excellent start to the series.
Ralph Vaughan Williams Folk Songs, Volume 2 Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, Roderick Williams, Thomas Gould, William Vann ALBCD043
Volume 2 of this valuable series opens splendidly with The Rich Old Lady sung by Nicky Spence, with fabulous and entertaining accents. This is the first of Nine English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachian Mountains, a set which also includes the gorgeous duet The Lovers’ Tasks. These are followed by Two English Folk Songs for Voice and Violin from 1935, featuring violinist Thomas Gould, and then, to complete the disc, A Selection of Collected Folk Songs, Volume 1 from 1917. Roderick Williams sings superbly, with his ever-peerless sensitivity and enunciation. Nicky Spence is also an excellent exponent of these songs, and William Vann is yet again most accomplished and sympathetic. Mary Bevan has a rich and mature voice, but throughout this disc she is rather on the flat side. This was not an issue in Volume 1 (although even there, her intonation was not as centred as that of her colleagues), but it is rather noticeable here. The engineered sound also still leaves something to be desired, again slightly tinny. The booklet notes are, as in Volume 1, excellent —I was particularly struck by the evocative old photographs of families in the Southern Appalachians. The disc concludes with The Farmyard Song, which was such a hit with my young son Tristan that we had to listen to it several times…! I await Volumes 3 and 4 with eager anticipation.
John Sykes Fearful Symmetry: Songs and Piano Music Rowan Pierce, Gareth Brynmor John, Iain Farrington, Williams Vann ALBCD040
John Sykes studied at Balliol College, Oxford and the Royal College of Music, at the latter under Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob. He spent all his working life at Kingswood School in Bath, where he rose to the position of Director of Music. Most of this disc is comprised of Sykes’s settings of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience (and there is a glorious, and most appropriate, Blake cover image). The two singers acquit themselves well: Brynmor John has an effortlessly powerful, rich and dark voice, whilst Pierce’s voice is fresh and bright. If these songs are perhaps not up there with the likes of Vaughan Williams, Warlock, Gurney or Finzi, they are still most certainly worth hearing. The cycle is followed by Polonaise–Assyrian Festive Dance for piano duo, here played with panache and spirit by Iain Farrington and Willian Vann --- great fun! Next, two more songs set words by Randall Swingler, who merits a detailed biography and photograph in the CD booklet. He appears to have been a most fascinating character: a writer, poet, lecturer and editor, so active as a Communist that he was investigated and reported on by MI5. (Interestingly, Britten and Rawsthorne also set his words to music.) These songs from his Homage to John Dowland are, like the Blake settings, very attractive, if unlikely to set the musical world alight. The disc ends with three solo piano works, skilfully composed by Sykes, and well played by Iain Farrington. There is also a bonus track for those downloading the album digitally.
Music for Stage and Screen ALBCD041
Here we have a compilation of archive music for stage and screen which opens and closes, appropriately enough, with the Prelude and Epilogue from Vaughan Williams’s music for The 49th Parallel, with Muir Mathieson conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. This is followed by the Ballet Music from Holst’s The Perfect Fool, with Boult conducting the London Philharmonia Orchestra in 1954: an excellent performance, full of passion and spirit. Walton conducts the Philharmonia String Orchestra in his own music for Henry V --The Death of Falstaff and Touch Her Soft Lips and Part-- which is followed by more romance and tenderness in the Main Theme from The Cure for Love, with music by William Alwyn, conducted by Mathieson and the London Symphony Orchestra once more. More Alwyn follows, perhaps unsurprisingly given his excellence as a film composer: the Calypso Music from The Rake’s Progress, again with Mathieson and the LSO, who also provide a wonderfully atmospheric rendition of Clifford Parker’s Seascape from Western Approaches. (I found this one of the most enjoyable tracks on the disc.)
Lorna’s Song was composed by Rutland Boughton for the 1934 version of Lorna Doone and is sung by the actress Victoria Hopper, who originally trained as an opera singer. Hopper’s intonation occasionally leaves something to be desired, but it’s quite a touching number. This is followed by the March from Things to Come, with music by Bliss, who conducts the LSO -- an enjoyable inclusion. Then come excerpts from Delius’s music to the play Hassan, conducted by Percy Fletcher with His Majesty’s Theatre Chorus and Orchestra and an H. Farrar as the tenor soloist (the notes don’t make the date of this recording clear). And before signing off with the Epilogue, we have various scenes from Honeymoon, with vibrant and atmospheric music by the Spanish composer Manuel de Falla and Beecham conducting the Rome Radio Orchestra.
All the works presented are delightful. My only criticisms are that this release would possibly have worked better as a set of two discs, one of stage music and the other of screen music, and that it would have been helpful to have the dates of the recordings themselves on the track listing, as one is constantly flicking through the otherwise-excellent booklet notes. Nevertheless, these are small drawbacks of an enjoyable disc.
British Music for Strings Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim, Douglas Bostock 555 382-2
Parry’s charming and masterfully-composed An English Suite is a lovely opener for this disc, but I was surprised (and saddened) to find that the ensemble and intonation of the Südwestdeutsches Kammerorchester Pforzheim occasionally slip. This is followed by Elgar’s Organ Sonata arranged for strings by Hans Kunstovny. I discovered that this arrangement doesn’t work for me at all; it just comes across as a bit messy. One wonders whether another arranger might have produced different, and perhaps more sympathetic, results. The disc concludes with Gordon Jacob’s Symphony for Strings, in which I would have liked more heft in the bass -- both basses and cellos sound a little under-powered. Nevertheless, it is always very good to come across English music played by our overseas colleagues, and one hopes that further discs in the series will be slightly more successful. There is, after all, plenty of English music for strings out there!
William Alwyn String Quartets Nos. 6, 7, 8 and 9 Villiers Quartet SRCD.386
I was very much looking forward to listening to William Alwyn’s quartets, but, rather to my surprise, found myself slightly disappointed, particularly by the playing on this disc. It features Alwyn’s sixth and seventh quartets (both composed in 1929) and his eighth and ninth quartets (the latter entitled Quartet in One Movement), both of which were written in 1931. It also includes the Seven Irish Tunes. These, to my ear, are by far the most charming and appealing works on the disc, although the performance of these little gems is rather on the raw side. The Villiers Quartet is quite closely miked (there is some mildly intrusive sniffing), and the engineered sound is slightly dull, which is surprising given that the disc was recorded in the excellent acoustic of Wyastone Concert Hall. Of the quartets themselves, the sixth seems to me the most inventive and vibrant of the featured four, but the rather earth-bound and unexciting playing doesn’t bring the works to life. Incorrect or confusing metadata for the String Quartet No. 8 add to the flaws of a release that does not quite fulfil its potential.
Herbert Howells Piano Music 1 Matthew Schellhorn 8.571382
Having discovered and fallen in love with Howells’s piano music at school, I was deeply excited to have the opportunity of hearing more of it on a recent Naxos release. This disc gives us the chance to reassess Howells as a master of a genre with which he is not usually associated. This is inventive, beautifully-crafted piano music that captures the imagination, from the gossamer and charming Harlequin Dreaming through the lyrical beauty of the early Summer Idylls to the drama of Phantasy. The disc spans Howells’s life, including early works composed in 1911 and his Petrus Suite of 1967-1973. The works are all beautifully performed by Matthew Schellhorn, who has a real feel for Howells’s idiom. My only negative comment is that the sound of the recording venue (the Menuhin hall at Stoke D’Abernon) is slightly on the tinny side. But do not let that put you off purchasing this disc!
Richard Blackford Blewbury Air Raphael Wallfisch, Adrian Farmer NI 1570
This short (twelve-minutes-long) disc contains a single work by contemporary composer Richard Blackford, but what a little gem it is! Blackford describes Blewbury Air as a “love letter” to the village of Blewbury, where he has made his home. It opens with the dynamic movement By the Water’s Edge, with its restless, sometimes yearning, feel and aqueous motifs. In the second movement Incantation With Bells the piano chords produce a tolling sound, and the final movement The Wind In The Branches is deeply evocative and pictorial. The work is beautifully played by cellist Raphael Wallfisch and pianist Adrian Farmer. Despite the disc’s brevity the booklet includes programme notes and a biography of the composer, although not of the artists. A lovely little release.
Sir Arthur Somervell A Shropshire Lad; Maud Roderick Williams, Susie Allan SOMMCD 0615
Maud, A Shropshire Lad, and the two stand-alone songs A Kingdom by the Sea and Shepherd’s Cradle Song complete a wonderful programme from Roderick Williams and Susie Allan. Williams’s marvellous singing is enhanced by his complete sensitivity to the text and to the composer’s nuances, and by fabulous colours. I particularly enjoyed the lovely lilting, dancing quality captured by both performers in Come into the Garden, Maud, and there is a fantastic sense of drama in Dead, Long Dead. Also very appropriate is the lovely Ravilious cover image. My only criticisms are that not enough space is left after the end of the Maud song-cycle before A Kingdom by the Sea, and the fact that the recorded sound is quite boomy: the engineer has left a great deal of space around the sound. The piano also doesn’t have much dimensionality — it’s very flat — and this is almost certainly an engineering issue rather than any shortcoming on the part of the excellent pianist.
One Hundred Years of British Song, Volume 1 James Gilchrist, Nathan Williamson SOMMCD 0621
This excellent disc opens with the world premiere recording of the extremely effective and evocative A Vigil of Pentecost by Gustav Holst, with its very recognisable Holstian chord progressions. This is followed by The Ballad of Hunting Knowe — also typically Holst, and here given a superb first recording by tenor James Gilchrist and pianist Nathan Williamson. We then have a selection from Holst’s Twelve Humbert Wolfe Songs, beautifully sung and highly atmospheric. A selection of really rather good Rebecca Clarke songs follows, with The Seal Man particularly powerful and chilling, and Eight O’Clock also gloriously intense. Four songs by Ivor Gurney include a particularly moving Down by the Salley Gardens and a suitably agonised Sleep, and the set concludes with Four Songs by Frank Bridge. Gilchrist is in excellent voice throughout; Williamson is an adroit and sensitive colleague; and the booklet is well-presented, with texts, and good notes from Nathan Williamson. All in all, highly recommended.
Ian Venables Requiem Choir of Gloucester Cathedral, Adrian Partington SOMMCD 0618
I have long admired Ian Venables’s music —his gorgeous songs especially — and was greatly impressed by his powerful and passionate Requiem, which forms the main part of this disc. There are hints of other composers from time to time (especially Herbert Howells), but this is Venables’s own unique, very sincere work, clearly no pastiche. I was particularly enthralled by the harrowing and exciting Libera Me, and can definitely recommend this quite magnificent work to any lover of English music. Works by John Sanders, John Joubert, Ivor Gurney and another, upbeat, piece by Venables complete the disc. It is a shame that there are some intonation issues in the Joubert O Eternal God, as this is otherwise an excellent disc, beautifully performed.
Rosa Mystica – Musical Portraits of the Blessed Virgin Mary Royal Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir, Paul Spicer SOMMCD 0617
This is a nicely presented disc, with good notes from conductor Paul Spicer, containing an attractive programme of works depicting the Virgin Mary. It opens with the reverential and moving Mother of God, Here I Stand from The Veil of the Temple by John Tavener, before moving on to Nicholas Ludford’s Ave cujus conceptio. The performance of this is not quite as strong, with the sopranos rather flat and the tenors struggling somewhat. Amongst the Bruckner, Bingham, Dalby, Rütti, Villette, and Kverno there are some stand-out works, including some serenely beautiful music by the Norwegian composer Gjeilo (Second Eve) and — something of a find — I Beheld Her, Beautiful as a Dove by London-born Canadian composer Healey Willan. However, Dyson’s Magnificat in F, Britten’s inventive and individual Rosa Mystica and Howells’s very characteristic Magnificat from the Chichester Service really steal the show. The disc ends very strongly and joyously with Cecilia McDowall’s highly effective and atmospheric Of a Rose.
Elgar from America, Volume II SOMM ARIADNE CD 5008
This is the second volume in the Elgar from America series, and presents just three works, opening with Cockaigne (In London Town) with the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Malcolm Sargent in 1945. It’s a noble and yet unsentimental account, also taken at quite a fast pace (clocking in at just over fourteen minutes), yet it manages not to feel rushed. This is followed by the Introduction and Allegro for Strings, recorded five years previously with Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The sound is noticeably poorer and muddier, with the violins sounding quite harsh and shrieky —a shame, as it is otherwise a really rather beautiful rendition. The main work, however, is the Violin Concerto in B minor, with Sargent conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra with Yehudi Menuhin, also recorded in 1945. Menuhin was currently at the height of his powers, and this is quite a muscular performance from him, with a very tenderly-performed slow movement. This is certainly a fascinating disc, which I recommend.--Em Marshall-Luck