Friday 12 June 2015

Vibrant conclusion - Nicky Spence in RVW songs with string accompaniment

Vaughan Williams
Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams Merciless Beauty: Three Rondels, Phantasy Quintet, Four Hymns, Nocturne and Scherzo, On Wenlock Edge; Nicky Spence, Benyounes Quartet, Sara Roberts, William Vann; London English Song Festival at St George's Church, Hanover Square
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 11 2015
Star rating: 5.0

RVW's works for voice and strings in this climax to the London English Song Festival

William Vann
William Vann
William Vann's exploration of the complete songs of Ralph Vaughan Williams in the eight days of the London English Song Festival at St George's Church, Hanover Square,  came to a vibrant conclusion last night (11 June 2015) with a concert given by tenor Nicky Spence, the Benyounes Quartet, viola player Sara Robert and William Vann, piano. They performed RVW's Merciless Beauty: Three Rondels, Phantasy Quintet, Four Hymns, Nocturne and Scherzo and On Wenlock Edge, a programme which mixed the performers in a whole variety of chamber combinations.

Nicky Spence
Nicky Spence
RVW's Merciless Beauty: Three Rondels is a setting of three poems attributed to Geoffrey Chaucer which RVW wrote in 1921 for the unusual combination of tenor, two violins and cello. The three poems use the rondel form which Chaucer introduced from France, and RVW set them in their original Chaucerian English. Almost vocal chamber music, the performers treated them as such with Nicky Spence sitting with the three instrumentalists Zara Benyounes, Emily Holland, and Kim Vaughan. The first two were full of lyric melancholy, with the poet enslaved by his Beauty. RVW makes the vocal line interweave with the strings. Nicky Spence gave us a beautifully modulated and shapely line, sung with great lyrical intensity and wonderful attention to the words. The songs were quite spare in their scoring but had a certain radiance to them. In the final one, the poet is free and the tempo quickened accordingly with lively rhythms and much charm.

Describing voices is always difficult, with a great use of analogy. Nicky Spence's combination of beauty and firmness of tone with frankness of delivery, and superb diction, brought to mind voices like Anthony Rolf Johnson and particularly Philip Langridge, though of course Nicky Spence has his own very distinct personality. Throughout the concert he showed a great deal of engagement with the other musicians, giving the aura of chamber music rather than a song recital per se.

Benyounes Quartet
Benyounes Quartet
RVW wrote his Phantasy Quintet in 1912, it was commissioned by Walter Cobbett who had established the Cobbett Prize and who was interested in both chamber music and the Elizabethan fantasy form. Here RVW wrote for a string quintet with two violas, and the four movements play without a break forming on multi-sectional whole based on the opening evocative viola solo. The first movement was spare and meditative in a lyric pastoral vein. The players (Zara Benyounes, Emily Holland, Meghan Cassidy, Sara Robert, Kim Vaughan) showed fine control and beautiful tone. The second movement was all rhythmic vigour with some nice contrasts between singing tone and rhythmic impulse. There was some fine sustained playing in the flowing third movement, with a lovely intensity. The final movement was busily created from some lively motifs which assembled into a sequence of perky country dances.

RVW's Four Hymns date from 1912 to 1914, a period just after his Five Mystical Songs whose sound world the hymns share. Each movement set a hymn text from various periods and Nicky Spence gave the whole a strong sense of identification with the text. That the hymns counted and meant for something. Lord! Come Away! (Jeremiah Taylor 1613-1667) started with firm, vibrant tone and strong declamation, with a nicely robust piano before becoming more confiding.  A haunting melody on the viola introduced Who is the fair one? (Isaac Watts 1674-1748) with a rather sinister piano accompaniment. Here the melodic and harmonic outlines really did recall the Five Mystical Songs, and the performers brought a sense of mystical passion to the piece. Come Love, come Lord (Richard Crashaw 1613-1649) started with a rather magical combination of viola and piano, then combining with the seductive beauty of the vocal line. Evening Hymn (Robert Bridges 1844-1930) had vigorous yet quiet instrumental contributions, and all concerned gave a strong sense of controlled intensity, of something being restrained and held in check. This was the second time that I had heard these pieces this week (the first being at Temple Music when Nicky Spence stood in at the last moment for Toby Spence) and I am puzzled that they are not more frequently done.

After the interval we started with a piece of relative rarity, RVW's 1906 Nocturne and Scherzo for string quintet. Here were flashes of the mature RVW combined with elements of Stanford and German Romanticism, as well as some strong counterpoint. The Scherzo used a folk-song, but handled in a way rather less imaginatively than in RVW's later music.

Finally we heard On Wenlock Edge the song cycle for tenor, string quartet and piano setting AE Housmann poems, and dating from 1909. It remains one of RVW's best known works and perhaps one of the most significant from his early period. On Wenlock Edge was fast and vibrant, with lots of atmospherics from piano and strings. Within all this Nicky Spence was firm and steady, and an admirable combination of vivid words and strong long. His tonal beauty in From far, from even and morning was combined with great intensity of meaning, and combined with refined instrumental playing. Nicky Spence brought a great sense of narrative to Is my team ploughing? with the two characters differentiated by tone of voice, but also different textures in the accompaniment, leading to gripping climax. Oh, when I was in love with you? was pure naughty charm, with some nice wry comments from the strings. Bredon Hill seemed to luxuriate in the lovely textures, but there was also an immediacy to Nicky Spence's story telling. Plenty of moment of magic led to a rapturous ending. Clun was easy flowing, with an appealing frankness from Nicky Spence complemented by some lovely subtle playing.

Having heard Nicky Spence performing two of the items earlier that week (see my article),  it was fascinating to hear them again with a different set of instrumental performers and with Nicky Spence benefiting from greater rehearsal time and not last minute hustle. The results had all the immediacy of the early performances, but with a more considered feel to the vocal tone. Speeds in the concert never felt slow, quite the contrary, but overall timings were surprising. The music flowed at just the right rate. What I took away most was the vibrant immediacy of Nicky Spence's communication in song, and the lovely collegiate chamber music feel to all the performances.

The London English Song Festival was a notable achievement, especially for founder, artistic director, organiser and pianist William Vann. It was an opportunity to hear all of RVW's major songs, being able to put them into context, and this concert made a fitting climax.

Elsewhere on this blog:

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