Friday 11 October 2019

The Song of Love: songs & duets by Vaughan Williams from Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams, William Vann

The Song of Love - Vaughan Williams - Albion Records
Ralph Vaughan Williams The House of Life, songs and duets; Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams, William Vann; Albion Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 July 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The first modern recording of RVW's song cycle with a female voice, alongside first recordings of a selection of songs and arrangements all lovingly performed

I have to confess that, familiar though I am with RVW's song Silent Noon, the song cycle from which it comes, The House of Life, is far less familiar. This new disc from Albion Records presents us with The House of Life alongside a selection of RVW's songs and duets which have hitherto escaped being recorded. For the disc, pianist William Vann is joined by mezzo-soprano Kitty Whately and baritone Roderick Williams.

RVW wrote The House of Life in 1903-04 (when he was in his early 30s) selecting the poems from Dante Gabriel Rosetti's 1881 collection of sonnets, The House of Life. The intriguing thing is that the cycle has been hitherto known on CD in versions for male voice (tenor and baritone), and admitedly two songs do address themselves to a female beloved, but RVW premiered it with a female singer (Edith Clegg accompanied by Hamilton Harty). In fact there is no case to be made for either version, the cycle works equally well, and is mesmerising here in Kitty Whately's superb performance. She has a wonderfully speaking tone, which is both sympathetic to the words and profoundly engaging. A very centred performance, beautifully accompanied by William Vann. I cannot imagine needing many other versions of the cycle.

The next group of songs are all arrangements which RVW made for Walter Ford, a professor of singing at the Royal College of Music and a folksong collector. So we have Three Old German Songs and four French Songs, sung by Roderick Williams. Not prime RVW perhaps, but an intriguing sidelight on his life as a jobbing composer in Edwardian London. Other arrangements on the disc include the popular song Buonaparty, and two traditional songs The Spanish Ladies and The Turtle Dove.

RVW made a setting of Robert Herrick's To Daffodils in 1895, but further made a second, different and rather lovely setting in 1903 as a present for the Massingberd family of Gunby Hall in Lincolnshire, where the manuscript was found.

We move to Shakespeare for the next group of songs, sung by Kitty Whately, an 1897 arrangement of The Willow Song (which was used in Shakespeare's Othello), in the traditional tune, and Three Songs from Shakespeare which were published in 1925. All three are short and very concentrated not to say austere, and you wonder why they are not better known. Intriguingly, RVW's settings of two poems by the Irish poet Seamus O'Sullivan, sung by Roderick Williams, date from around the time RVW started work on his opera Riders to the Sea, based on Irish playwright J.M.Synge's play of the same name. Again they are concentrated and rather austere, 'A Piper' lasts under 45 seconds, and RVW said they could be performed unaccompanied. So this is their first recording in the version with piano.
Finally, two delightful duets, German folk-songs sung in English versions.

Not every song on this disc is a masterpiece, but all are lovingly performed by Kitty Whately, Roderick Williams and William Vann, and you certainly do not need the printed words, such is the excellence of their diction. What the disc does give us is series of snapshots of RVW's development as a composer, and a sample of his work as a jobbing composer before he became a Grand Old Man.

Ralph Vaughan William (1872-1958) - The House of Live (1903-1904)
Ralph Vaughan William - Three Old German Songs (1902)
Ralph Vaughan William - To Daffodils (1903)
Ralph Vaughan William - French Songs (1903-1904)
Ralph Vaughan William - Buonaparty (1903)
Ralph Vaughan William - The Willow Song (1897)
Ralph Vaughan William - Three Songs from Shakespeare (1925)
Ralph Vaughan William - The Spanish Ladies (1912)
Ralph Vaughan William - The Turtle Dove (1919-1934)
Ralph Vaughan William - Two Poems by Seumas O'Sullivan (1925)
Ralph Vaughan William - Duets (1903)
Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
William Vann (piano)
Recorded at Potton Hall, 27 November to 1 December 2018
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