Tuesday 22 November 2016

Purer than Pearl: RVW rarities and discoveries

Purer than Pearl - Ralph Vaughan Williams - Albion Records
Ralph Vaughan Williams songs and duets; Mary Bevan, Jennifer Johnston, Nicky Spence, Johnny Herford, Thomas Gould, William Vann; Albion records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Nov 18 2016
Star rating: 4.5

Early songs and mature songs which deserve to be better known on this affectionate survey of RVW's song output

If you played this disc blind, the opening songs would certainly not make you think of RVW. In fact RVW wrote songs all his life and this new disc from Albion Records (the recording arm of the RVW Society) presents a wide range of the composer's songs and duets, the new discoveries and the lesser known, ranging from his earliest surviving ones to those from the 1930s including a selection from The Poisoned Kiss arranged by Adrian Williams. The performers are William Vann (piano), Thomas Gould (violin), Mary Bevan (soprano), Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor) and Johnny Herford (baritone).

Johnny Herford, William Vann, Nicky Spence, Mary Bevan, Thomas Gould with John Francis of the RVW Society
Johnny Herford, William Vann, Nicky Spence, Mary Bevan, Thomas Gould
with John Francis of the RVW Society
The songs are presented roughly chronologically, though for some this is the date of publication rather than the date of composition. This means that we start with a selection of songs before RVW was RVW. His editing of his compositions from his early career was quite ruthless, so it is fascinating to be able to hear songs which are clearly influenced not by folk-song but by Wagner, Brahms, Stanford and Parry. They give us a window onto how RVW developed as a composer. Not great songs, but creditable and more than performable.

RVW's first published and best known song remains Linden Lea, which is here heard in an highly effective arrangement for SATB and piano by Sumner Satter.

I have always though that some of RVW's most imaginative songs are those which involve instruments other than piano, you think of the Blake settings with oboe, or Merciless Beauty, the Chaucer settings with string trio. Here we get the profoundly lovely How Cold the Wind Doth Blow (The Unquiet Grave), a folk-song arranged for soprano (Mary Bevan), violin (Thomas Gould) and piano (William Vann), and the two folk songs arrangements for tenor and violin (Nicky Spence and Thomas Gould), Searching for Lambs and The Lawyer. These are prime RVW and show how expressively imaginative his songs could be.

Another highlight is the finely moving duet Dirge for Fidele (Mary Bevan, Jennifer Johnston and William Vann), which is one of the works whose exact origin is uncertain, and Michael Kennedy believed it dates from 1895, but it was only published in 1922.

RVW's operetta The Poisoned Kiss has remained a somewhat unsatisfactory work, despite serial tinkering, with the libretto being revised by Ursula Vaughan Williams in the 1950s. But the lack of a sharp edge to Evelyn Sharps' original text means that RVW's music is predominantly lyrically appealing. The new selection of songs and duets makes a quite satisfying whole without having to worry about the limitations of the story-line, and pieces like the lovely duet The Enchanted Air (Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, William Vann) deserved wider currency.

The performances from Mary Bevan, Jennifer Johnston, Nicky Spence, Johnny Herford, Thomas Gould and William Vann are uniformly excellent and the lesser known items come over with a really winning affection. This is perhaps a disc to dip into rather than listen to from end to end. The early songs provide a valuable into RVW's genesis as a composer whilst the mature works on the disc bring to light works which deserve to be better known.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Summum Bonum
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Crossing the Bar
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Wishes
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Spinning Song
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Lollipop’s Song
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Rumpelstiltskin’s Song
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Linden Lea
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Last Invocation
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Love-song of the Birds
Ralph Vaughan Williams - How cold the wind doth blow
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Dirge for Fidele
Ralph Vaughan Williams - It was a Lover and his Lass
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Searching for Lambs
Ralph Vaughan Williams - The Lawyer
Ralph Vaughan Williams, arr. Adrian Green - Eight songs from The Poisoned Kiss
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Jennifer Johnston (mezzo-soprano)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Johnny Herford (baritone)
William Vann (piano)
Thomas Gould (violin)
Available from Amazon.co.uk.

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