Thursday 6 May 2021

Vaughan Williams' folk songs; Albion Records continues its exploration with a second volume including 15 world premiere recordings

Vaughan Williams Folk Song Arrangements, volume 2; Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence,

Vaughan Williams Folk Song Arrangements, volume 2; Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, Roderick Williams, William Vann; Albion Records

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 May 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
The second volume of Albion's exploration of RVW's folk-song arrangements reveals some delightful gems

Albion Records, the recording arm of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, is exploring RVW's folk-song arrangements for voice(s) and piano in an ambitious four disc project. This will cover all of RVW's 80 arrangements of which 57 will be world premiere recordings. For this second disc in the set, on Albion Records, Mary Bevan (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Thomas Gould (violin) and William Vann (piano), present us with folk songs collected in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, two songs with violin, and a miscellany of other English folk song.

RVW created these arrangements for performance, so that singers could include the music in recitals. These are arrangements which deliberately move the folk song into the recital hall, yet RVW's artful piano accompaniments draw far less attention to themselves than those of Britten in his folk-song arrangements. And having listened to this beautifully performed recital, I wonder yet again why these arrangements are not better known. RVW's arrangements often had a practical side to them, he would make them as part of publishing projects which aimed to encourage folk-singing in schools, and the songs seem to have had a life not in the professional recital hall but a competitive festivals and other amateur music making. Yet RVW's piano parts are more imaginative than functional. With the release of these recordings, we must hope that the printed music is similarly easily available to encourage singers to explore.

Because, there is remarkable variety here. RVW's arrangements do not necessarily intersect with his own folk-song collecting. And indeed the first nine songs on the disc are arrangements of folk-songs collected in the Southern Appalachian Mountains by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles between 1916 and 1918. The Appalachians fascinated folk-song collectors at the time, because the area was remote and the inhabitants were typically third or fourth generation immigrants from Britain, and Sharp found their speech more English than American. Songs were sung by everyone (not just old folk as in England), and many of the songs had their origin in songs from the North of England and Scotland, so that Sharp and Karpeles collected versions of songs known in different versions in the UK. RVW made arrangements of nine in the 1930s, but they were not published until 1967.

The songs all seem to be long ones, often narrative and for the recordings verses have been snipped but the narrative preserved. RVW does not through compose them, but he often groups the verses together via repeated accompaniments, and you always sense that the piano is setting off the melody and the text. All three singers participate in the Appalachian songs, and all three have terrific diction and a nice sense of story telling and humour. Choral singers will recognise the verses of The House Carpenter (The Daemon Lover) as some of the songs verses are in 'The Lovers Ghost' in Five English Folk-songs, though this version has a different tune and rather more verses.

Next come RVW's two songs for voice, violin and piano in recordings which were released as part of Albion's Purer than Pearl disc [see my review], with Nicky Spence, Thomas Gould and William Vann. RVW made the arrangements around 1913, but they were not published until 1935. Evidently, Cecil Sharp had written an arrangement of Searching for Lambs; his accompaniments were simpler and more functional than RVW's, and though RVW was outwardly supportive of Sharp's accompaniments he acknowledged that some were unsatisfactory and may have held back publication until after Sharp's death in 1924. Whatever, these are terrific songs and the addition of the violin really lifts them.

The disc ends with a mixed and varied group of English folk songs all but one of which come from an undated volume of arrangements by Sharp and RVW which was probably published around 1914. The recital ends with The Farmyard Song, a delightful piece which involves the singer making animal noises. It is one of those list songs, where the list grows longer for each verse (there are a number on the disc), and here Nicky Spence sings the song but Mary Bevan does the noises including a wonderfully characterful and gruff 'Wuff, wuff' for the dog.

The last line in each verse of The Farmyard Song is 'Join in ev’ry neighbour’s cock and my cock well done too', which Spence sings completely po-faced, but which you can't help but feel was originally intended to be suggestive or even lewd. The early 20th century collectors were terribly po-faced about the more risque or suggestive elements in songs, often eliminating them or bowdlerising the words (such as the omission of verses from Britten's arrangement of The Foggy Dew). Another song on the disc, My Boy Billy has its first verse missing; in this verse the questioner asks ‘Where have you been all this night?’ only to learn that ‘I have been all this night, courting with a lady bright’.

You might be asking yourself why do I need another volume of these folk-song arrangements. But RVW's versions of these songs are delightful, he imbues sufficient character into the piano without taking over the song and always text and melody are set off finely, yet the result is clearly art song. And in performances like these, this varied selection of songs makes for a wonderfully engaging and satisfying recital.

Nine English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachian Mountains (c. 1938, published 1967)
The Rich Old Lady
The Tree in the Wood
Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor
The Lovers’ Tasks
John Randolph
Fair Margaret and Sweet William
Barbara Ellen
The House Carpenter
The Twelve Apostles

Two English Folk Songs for voice & violin (c 1913, published 1935)
Searching for Lambs
The Lawyer

A Selection of Collected Folk Songs Volume 1 (1917)
Down by the Riverside
I will give my Love an Apple
The Carter
The Painful Plough
My Boy Billy
The Fox
The Female Highwayman
Farmyard Song

Mary Bevan (soprano)
Nicky Spence (tenor)
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Thomas Gould (violin)
William Vann (piano)
Recorded 7-11 June 2020, Henry Wood Hall; 4-5 January 2016, Potton Hall
ALBION ALBCD043 1CD [56.22]

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