Wednesday 12 February 2020

Whither Must I Wander? - A young American duo bring poetry & imagination to a voyage around RVW's 'Songs of Travel'

Whither Must I Wander - Vaughan Williams, Keel, Howells, Copland, Medtner, Schumann; Will Liverman, Jonathan King; Odradek Records
Whither Must I Wander - Vaughan Williams, Keel, Howells, Copland, Medtner, Schumann; Will Liverman, Jonathan King; Odradek Records
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
A young American duo bring out the poetry in an imaginative voyage around RVW's early song cycle Songs of Travel

For Whither must I wander on Odradek Records the young American baritone Will Liverman is joined by pianist Jonathan King for a programme inspired by RVW's Songs of Travel, so alongside this song cycle we have songs by James Frederick Keel, Herbert Howells, Aaron Copland, Nikolai Medtner and Robert Schumann all linked by the figure of the wanderer.

We start with RVW; his 1904 song cycle sets nine poems from Robert Louis Stevenson's Songs of Travel and Other Verses. The verses were only published in 1896 (two years after Stevenson's death), so RVW was being contemporary in his choice of poet. It was his first foray into writing a song cycle, and has a surprisingly complex textual history. The first eight songs were premiered in 1904, and the publishers refused to print it as a cycle and instead issued it in two volumes. The ninth song, 'I have trod the upward and downward slope' was found amongst RVW's papers after his death.

Will Liverman brings a lovely sense of poetry and swagger to the opening song, this is trope which occurs throughout the cycle but there are plenty of moments of introspection too, and Liverman fines his resonant, bright baritone down for some nicely intimate pieces.
I found a rather nice tactile quality to Liverman's sound, and he is well partnered by King. Liverman's diction is excellent, certainly no need of a printed crib, and he makes the poetry expressive. Perhaps he does not quite capture the more mystical elements of RVW's music, Liverman's wanderer is a very practical, down to earth young man, albeit one with many regrets. The eighth song sees the swagger of the opening returning, but with the posthumously published ninth song we move into more thoughtful territory and the idea of a new journey.

James Frederick Keel was both a composer and a singer, he was an early member of the English Folk Song Society, acting as its Hon Secretary between 1911 and 1919. At the outbreak of World War I, Keel and his family were on holiday in Bavaria, and he was arrested and interned in the Ruhleben Internment Camp along with a number of other musicians including the composer Benjamin Dale. Keel's John Masefield settings, Salt Water Ballads, arose out of his experience performing in the camp.

Keel sets three of Masefield's quasi sea chanty poems. The first, 'Port of Many Ships' has the tang of the sea, though the wordiness of the setting does remind you of G&S sometimes. We get more of a touching hint of poetry in the second song, 'Trade Winds' whilst 'Mother Carey' returns us to sea-chanty-ish swagger.

Herbert Howells' 1919 song setting Walter de la Mare, King David, brings a real change of mood, here the wandering is almost internal, a sign of the king's inner restlessness. Liverman sings it with a nice feel for the poetry and lovely fluid phasing and is well partnered by King's expressive piano-playing, particularly the nightingale.

This is followed by one of Aaron Copland's Old American Songs (the first set of which was premiered by Britten and Pears in 1950). At the River comes from the second set in 1952; originally a hymn tune from 1865, Liverman and King give us a quietly interior performance. And this is well complemented by Steven Mark Kohn's arrangement of the traditional song Ten Thousand Miles Away, very much a poetic ballad.

For the final two songs we get not just a change of mood, but significant changes of style and language. First comes Nikolai Medtner's Wanderer's Night Song from his 1905 Nine Goethe Songs, Op. 6 (a text famously set by Schubert!). This is a striking song, the voice almost intoning whilst the piano seems to evoke bells. Then finally we get a beautifully phrased account of Mondnacht from Schumann's Liederkreis Op. 39. No matter how finely these last two are performed, they do seem to somehow break the mood of the recital, but the Schumann did make me interested in hearing Liverman in the whole Liederkreis.

This is a fine recital disc (not quite a debut disc, though Liverman's only other recital disc concentrates on gospel music and spirituals), and an imaginative attempt to programme around RVW's popular song cycle. Whilst there are, inevitably other recordings by other singers (a certain Welsh baritone anyone?), Liverman and King make a fine partnership and Liverman clearly establishes himself as a young baritone to watch, with a fine sense of both the music and the poetry in song.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Songs of Travel (1904) [24:22]
James Frederick Keel (1871-1954) - Three Salt-Water Ballads (1919) [6:09]
Herbert Howells (1892-1983) - King David (1919) [4:55]
Aaron Copland (1900-1990) - At the River (1952) [4:04]
Traditional, arranged Steven Mark Kohn (born 1957) - Ten Thousand Miles Away (2000) [4:18]
Nikolai Medtner (1880-1951) - Wanderer's Night Song (1903) [2:41]
Robert Schumann (1810-1856) - Mondnacht (Liederkreis, Op.39) (1840) [3:50]
Will Liverman (baritone)
Jonathan King (piano)
Recorded in August 2017 and August 2018 at Skillman Music Recording Studio, Brooklyn, New York, USA

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