Thursday 13 October 2022

The Roadside Fire: Ossian Huskinson & Matthew Fletcher in Vaughan Williams and more on Linn Records

The Roadside Fire: Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel, Farrar, Warlock, Head; Ossian Huskinson, Matthew Fletcher; Royal Academy of Music Bicentenary Series on LINN RECORDS
The Roadside Fire: Vaughan Williams Songs of Travel, Farrar, Warlock, Head; Ossian Huskinson, Matthew Fletcher; Royal Academy of Music Bicentenary Series on LINN RECORDS    

Youthful energy and poetry from bass Ossian Huskinson in this fine debut recital as part of the Royal Academy of Music's Bicentenary celebrations

As part of the Royal Academy of Music's bicentenary celebrations, four recipients of the Academy’s 2020/21 Bicentenary Scholarships scheme – Julie Park, Camilla Harris, Ossian Huskinson and Charlie Lovell-Jones – will each release a new album. The first of these, on Linn Records, features bass Ossian Huskinson and pianist Matthew Fletcher in The Roadside Fire featuring RVW's Songs of Travel alongside other travel songs by Ernest Farrar, Peter Warlock and Michael Head.

Huskinson comments in his booklet note that the "recording is dedicated to Sally Bauer, my first singing teacher, who handed me Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Vagabond’ over eleven years ago, and started my very own journey". What is fascinating is that Huskinson has paired RVW's cycle with songs by younger English contemporaries exploring the same theme, including some of Ernest Farrar's Vagabond Songs including a setting of the same R.L. Stevenson poem as RVW.

We first came across Ossian Huskinson in 2019, in Tchaikovsky's Iolanta with Royal Academy Opera [see my review], since then he has been an Alvarez Young Artist at Garsington, winning the Simon Sandbach award in 2021 [see my article], and now as a Harewood Artist at English National Opera has appeared memorably in HMS Pinafore, The Cunning Little Vixen and Tosca.

This new disc reveals him to have a finely burnished and beautifully flexible bass voice, his fluidity and sense of line perhaps surprising given the deep dark tone, but he can also lighten things. His performance of RVW's Songs of Travel is notable for the wide variety of timbre that he brings to the piece, allied to remarkable dynamic range. Yes, the voice thrills in the climaxes but in the serious centre of the cycle in numbers six and seven, he can be finely intimate and gentle, even in the higher reaches. And his diction is very fine indeed; granted, I know the songs well, but the words come over all the time, allied to a sense of line that is admirable.

This is young man's music, for all the mature sound of Huskinson's bass voice, and he brings a liveliness to the best passages and throughout there is a lovely sense of poetry. The poetic is never very far away, and even the liveliest song has its contemplative moments as Huskinson and Fletcher allow their vagabond to pause and reflect. From the opening song, with its steadiness of tempo allied to a maturity of sound and darkly focussed tone, there is a sense that for all his youth, this vagabond is a sober and thoughtful young man. There is swagger too, in songs like number eight, but even here poetry wins out.

Ernest Farrar studied at the Royal College of Music with Stanford. He enlisted in 1915 and was killed in 1918. He began his Vagabond Songs in 1908 (some four years after RVW's cycle was premiered) and Farrar's cycle was intended for baritone and orchestra with the version for baritone and piano being created in 1911. 'The Wanderers Song' has a lovely outdoorsy swagger to it, with a fine feeling of vigour from both performers. The style whilst recognisably English, is in striking contrast to the RVW. 'Silent Noon' uses a poem familiar from RVW, but here in a different, yet equally poetic approach. 'The Roadside Fire', setting an RLS poem familiar from Songs of Travel, is perkily vigorous and receives a wonderfully engaging performance.

Huskinson follows these with the third of Peter Warlock's Three Belloc Songs, 'My own country' which dates from 1927. Huskinson and Fletcher give a finely rapturous yet thoughtful performance, notable for its lack of tub-thumping swagger.

Then comes two songs by Michael Head including the fifth of his Songs of the Countryside, written when he was still in his early 20s, and 'Vagabond Song' from Three Cotswold Songs. 'Vagabond Song' has an underlying swagger to it, with a wonderful zest to the piano, yet there is subtlety here to, and the whole song has a Warlock-esque feel to it. By contrast 'Sweet Chance' is beautifully lyrical and melodic.

We end with RVW in rather different mood, the poetic rhapsody of Linden Lea. Familiar territory, but finely realised by the two performers and Huskinson's approach really does make us listen to the text, the poetry of William Barnes.

Ossian Huskinson (Photo Besim Mazhiqi)
Ossian Huskinson (Photo Besim Mazhiqi)

The Roadside Fire
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) - Songs of Travel
Ernest Farrar (1885-1918) - Vagabond Songs, Op.10
Peter Warlock (1894-1930) - My Own Country (Three Belloc Songs)
Michael Head (1900-1976) - A Vagabond Song (Three Cotswold Songs)
Michael Head - Sweet Chance, That Led My Steps Abroad (Songs of the Countryside)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Linden Lea
Ossian Huskinson (bass)
Matthew Fletcher (piano)
Recorded in the Angela Burgess Recital Hall, Royal Academy of Music, 21 September 2021

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