Friday, 25 November 2016

Celebrating Purer than Pearl

Johnny Herford, William Vann, Nicky Spence, Mary Bevan, Thomas Gould with John Francis of the RVW Society at the recording sessions for Purer then Pearl
Johnny Herford, William Vann, Nicky Spence, Mary Bevan, Thomas Gould
with John Francis of the RVW Society at recording sessions for Purer than Pearl
The RVW Society held an event last night (24 November 2016) to celebrate the release of Purer than Pearl (see my review), their latest disc of RVW discoveries on Albion Records. Rather appropriately in the Parry Rooms at the Royal College of Music, five of the performers from the disc soprano Mary Bevan, tenor Nicky Spence, baritone Johnny Herford, violinist Thomas Gould and pianist William Vann gave us a chance to hear a selection of music from the disc including Summum Bonum, Crossing the Bar, the Rumpelstiltskin songs, It was a Lover and his Lass, Searching for Lambs, The Lawyer, How Cold the Wind Doth Blow, Two Vocal Duets and a selection from The Poisoned Kiss arranged by Adrian Williams, with a number being first performances.

RVW's first surviving song is a setting of Robert Browning's Summum Bonum from 1891, which we heard performed by Nicky Spence and William Vann. John Francis from the RVW Society explained that when RVW showed the song to his teacher, Hubert Parry, Parry praised the setting for its insight but added that there was far too much Wagner in it. So the song disappeared without trace, yet RVW did not throw it away and his manuscript fair copy was preserved in the British Library. Similarly early (1892) is Crossing the Bar, a setting of Tennyson, which was performed by Johnny Herford and William Vann. This had elements of the salon about it too, but you could also try to detect hints of the mature RVW that we know.

More curious are the charming songs from Rumpelstiltskin, about which very little is known. Johnny Herford sang them, and the audience joined in as the chorus, which was great fun. Nicky Spence and Johnny Herford sang the Shakespeare duet It was a Lover and his Lass, and then Nicky Spence and Thomas Gould gave us a chance to hear the striking Two English Folksongs (Searching for Lambs and The Lawyer) for the unusual combination of voice and violin. This was prime RVW, the settings date from 1935.

Mary Bevan, Johnny Herford and Nicky Spence, accompanied by William Vann then gave us four songs from Adrian Williams' newly created Eight Songs from The Poisoned Kiss, the first time that Williams' versions of the songs have been performed. This was a chance to hear some mature RVW, unaccountably rather ignored and the new arrangements work so well that I hope others are encouraged to perform them.

How Cold the Wind Doth Blow (or The Unquiet Grave) was for me the highlight of the evening, A folk song arrangement dating from 1912, to the combination of soprano and piano (Mary Bevan and William Vann), RVW adds a highly evocative violin obbligato (Thomas Gould). The performance concluded with Two Vocal Duets from 1904, again RVW adds a violin to the mix, here performed by Mary Bevan, Johnny Herford, William Vann and Thomas Gould. The duets are notable for the fact that they seem to be RVW's first encounter with the poetry of Walt Whitman. Present in the audience were members of the family of Arthur Foxton Ferguson, one of the original singers of the duets. (you can read more about the duets in the thesis by Marcus DeLoach at Rice University, and DeLoach was also present at the performance).

This was a lovely chance to hear a selection from the disc, and to experience how well the songs work in performance. I am sure that it will not be the last we hear of them.

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