Saturday 14 November 2020

The folk-song as art song: Albion Records's first volume of its complete Vaughan Williams folk-song arrangements

Ralph Vaughan Williams Folk Songs, Vol. 1; Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, Roderick Williams, Jack Liebeck, William Vann; Albion Records

Ralph Vaughan Williams Folk Songs, Vol. 1; Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, Roderick Williams, Jack Liebeck, William Vann; Albion Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 11 November 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
The first volume in a series devoted to RVW's folk-song arrangements for voice and piano, with a significant number of first recordings

When you say Vaughan Williams and folk-song, what immediately comes to mind, the choral settings, the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, Greensleeves, Six Studies in English Folk-song or perhaps simply the way folk-song came to imbue RVW's essential style. Maybe we might remember a few of the folk-song arrangements which pop up in recitals, such as Through Bushes and Through Briars, but in fact there are over 80 folk-song arrangements by RVW for voice and piano, the majority of which have never been recorded. Albion Records (the recording arm of the RVW Society) is planning a four-disc set of all RVW's arrangements of folk-song for voice and piano or violin, 80 in all of which 57 have not previously been recorded in these arrangements. That's a hell of a lot of mature RVW to simply drop off the table.

The first volume in Albion Records new series, Ralph Vaughan Williams: Folk Songs Volume 1, features soprano Mary Bevan, tenor Nicky Spence, baritone Roderick Williams, violinist Jack Liebeck and pianist William Vann in 23 songs, including 15 world premieres, Folk Songs from Sussex from 1912, Six English Folksongs from 1935, and three sea songs from The Motherland Song Book, Volume IV (1919).

RVW himself collected many folk-songs, between 1903 and 1913, he transcribed over 800 folk songs, mostly from the southeastern counties and East Anglia [there is a fascinating article at the British Library website, and RVW's m/s are there]. The curiosity about the songs on this disc is that quite a number were not collected by RVW himself. Folk Songs from Sussex was volume five of a series from Novello, Folk Songs of England, edited by the folk-song collector Cecil Sharp (1859-1924). All the songs in Folk Songs from Sussex were collected by W Percy Merrick (1869–1955), a folk song collector who worked with Lucy Broadwood (1858-1929) and other members of the Folk Song Society. And in fact all the songs come from a set of 60 recorded as being sung by Henry Hills (1831–1901), a farmer originally from Lodsworth (between Midhurst and Petworth), Sussex, between 1899 and 1901. The Six English Folksongs were collected by RVW, as were the final three songs on the disc. But clearly the act of arranging was entirely separate from that of collecting, it wasn't that once RVW had collected a song he arranged it. Quite the opposite, it seems.

So why are these songs not better known?

Collecting folk-song was, in fact, a remarkably contentious sport, there was disagreement between those like Bela Bartok (1881-1945) and Percy Grainger (1882-1961), who used a phonograph (or some such device) to record the songs and those, like RVW and Cecil Sharp, who used pen and ink. This suggests another divide, between those who were recording simply what was there, and those (often from the English school) whose aim was to recover the 'more perfect' original. This is reflected in the arrangements, so that Grainger's highly interventionist folk-song arrangements include complex text/music changes over verses and were regarded, by Grainger, as pictures of the singers themselves. By contrast, many of the English school gave the songs quite discreet accompaniments, with music and text tidied up. Yet, during the 20th century even these have fallen out of favour and folk singers returned to the collected originals and created a new living tradition based on unaccompanied song (as the originals would usually have been).

RVW was clear that he was not trying to go back, he was creating versions of the songs for today but most seem to have failed to catch on as recital items. RVW's accompaniments are clearly RVW but relatively discreet and usually do not call attention to themselves. The moments which stand out are those when he moves closer towards art-song, such as in the lovely song How Cold the Wind doth Blow with its added violin solo (here sung a duet by Mary Bevan and Nicky Spence, with Jack Liebeck on violin). We need to contrast this with the arrangements of folk-song and traditional song created by Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) for himself and Peter Pears to sing in recital. Here his accompaniments are far more interventionist, clearly by Britten and the songs have retained a role in recitals in a way that RVWs have not.

RVW's songs could not hope for better advocates than those on this disc. Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence and Roderick Williams all combine a feeling for expressive line with clarity of diction, so you never need to resort to the printed words, and no-one tries to make these songs be anything other than art songs, there is no self-conscious folk element. The other characteristic shared by these performers is their feel for telling a good story, and some of these are rattling good yarns. Many of the songs are known in vastly different versions, and it is fascinating to hear these less interventionist versions. (Compare the solo song Just as the tide was flowing with the part-song arrangment RVW made in the 1950s!). Throughout William Vann, who is credited as musical director of the project, proves to be a sympathetic accompanist, whilst Jack Liebeck is lovely on the two songs that he contributes to. There  is also a small chorus (Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby sopranos, Cara Curran alto, Benedict Hymas tenor, James Arthur, Nicholas Ashby basses) whose contributions enliven three of the songs.

Not everyone will want a disc of 23 of RVW's folk song arrangements, but there is much to enjoy here and the disc works not only as a curiosity, giving us access to another element of RVW's career and the 20th century sport of folk-song collecting, but it also works as a fine recital.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Folk Songs from Sussex (1912)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Six English Folk Songs (1935)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - sea songs from The Motherland Song Book, Vol IV (1919)
Mary Bevan (soprano)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Jack Liebeck (violin)
William Vann (piano)
Recorded at Henry Wood Hall, 7-11 June 2020
Available from Amazon

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