Tuesday 13 December 2022

How Cold the Wind doth Blow: songs by RVW, friends and pupils at Wigmore Hall

Jack Liebeck, William Vann, Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence at Wigmore Hall (Photo courtesy of William Vann)
Jack Liebeck, William Vann, Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence at Wigmore Hall (Photo courtesy of William Vann)

How Cold the Wind doth Blow:
Vaughan Williams, Holst, Thomas Dunhill, Ireland,  Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams, Elizabeth Maconchy, Ina Boyle; Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, Jack Liebeck, William Vann; Wigmore Hall
Reviewed 11 December 2022; (★★★★★)

A lovely way to round off the RVW celebrations with a selection of his finest folk-song arrangements alongside songs by his friends and pupils

On Sunday afternoon (11 December 2022), Wigmore Hall continued its RVW celebrations with How Cold the Wind doth Blow, a programme of songs and duets by RVW and his friends and pupils including Gustav Holst, Thomas Dunhill, John Ireland, Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams, Elizabeth Maconchy and Ina Boyle, performed by Mary Bevan (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), William Vann (piano) and Jack Liebeck (violin).

Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst met as students at the Royal College of Music and remained friends until Holst's death in 1934. They bonded over a love of literature, both developed an enthusiasm for folksong, the relationship was punctuated by long walking tours and each showed the other virtually everything they were writing.

Holst's Jesus sweet, now will I sing, Op.35 No. 1 (1916-17) is written for the relatively unusual combination of voice and violin (here Mary Bevan and Jack Liebeck). The sound-world seemed evocative of RVW's Four Hymns which were written in 1914 for tenor, viola and piano. Serious and intent, Mary Bevan beautifully captured the vocals, with Jack Liebeck providing support and commentary, resulting in some lovely combinations of timbres. This continued with Rebecca Clarke's Three Old English Songs from 1923-24 for voice and violin. Clarke was one of Stanford's first female composition students in 1903, where she knew RVW who conducted a choir she organised. Clarke was not particularly part of the folk-song revival, but her three songs use folk tunes as their basis. Clarke's experience as a fine viola player shows in her string writing here. It was a lover and his lass used the familiar tune but the addition of the violin made for a different texture in this vigorous setting. Phillis on the new made hay was more intimate, with a lovely way the violin accompanied the voice. Finally the vivid The tailor and the mouse, full of delightful character.

Next came a pair of RVW folk song arrangements where the composer added a violin to the mix, to striking and powerful effect. First The seeds of love (from 1923) performed by Mary Bevan, Jack Liebeck and William Vann, which started as simply a flowing folk-song for voice and piano, until the violin finally entered during the third verse and brought an extra layer of tenderness. Then The Unquiet Grave (from 1912) which Bevan and Spence performed as a duet, with Liebeck and Vann. This remains one of my favourite of RVW's folk song arrangements for the way the violin line intensifies the emotions and here we heard what was a remarkable transformation of folk-song into art song.

Nicky Spence and William Vann then performed a group of songs by RVW and friends he made at college. These relationships were important to RVW, and he tried to inculcate this sort of camaraderie in his own pupils. Spence and Vann began with Holst's The Heart Worships (from 1907) setting a text by Alice Buckton. It was a small, highly concentrated piece with a lovely use of silence. 

Thomas Dunhill also studied at the Royal College of Music (RCM) under Stanford, from 1894 to 1901. His song cycle The Wind in the Reeds includes his W.B. Yeats setting The Cloths of Heaven (from 1911). Intimate with a superb attention to the words, Spence and Vann's performance was a little bit of magic. John Ireland was another RCM pupil, and his song Spleen comes from his cycle Marigold (from 1913). The song sets Ernest Dowson's English version of the Verlaine poem, and Ireland's music has a similar European influence. An intense song, with complex piano writing and dark vocal line that moves to real bitterness towards the end. RVW's The Sky above the Roof from 1908 also sets an English version of Verlaine, this time by Mabel Dearmer. RVW's moving setting is almost free arioso.

Two duets by RVW dating from 1922 followed. Dirge for Fidele is an entirely serious piece, divorced from the original setting in Shakespeare's play Cymbeline and movingly given here. Then It was a lover and his lass, in a delightful version that was far more art song than folk.

Rebecca Clarke's A Psalm of David, When He Was in the Wilderness of Judah, dating from 1920, is an entirely different style of piece to the Clarke songs earlier in the programme. Bevan and Vann gave us a powerful performance of this remarkable piece, the music showing Clarke's interest in contemporary European composers. Written in a sort of free arioso, it was intense, and complex, making you wonder why it is not more performed. 

Grace Williams, Elizabeth Maconchy, and Ina Boyle all met whilst studying at the RCM under Vaughan Williams and remained life-long friends. Spence and Vann gave us a song by each of them. Grace Williams' Slow, Slow, Fresh Fount (a setting of Ben Jonson from around 1925) was rather rhapsodic and highly reminiscent of RVW. Elizabeth Maconchy's John Donne setting, A Hymn to God the Father (from 1959) introduced us to a strong and striking sound-world in a serious work with highly sculptural lines. Finally in this group, Ina Boyle's The Last Invocation, a Walt Whitman setting from 1913. This was almost rhapsodic with Whitman's text treated with lyrical freedom.

By way of contrast, Bevan and Spence were joined by Liebeck and Vann for RVW's own 1904 setting of the same Whitman text. This began with a lovely solo violin line, and the voices only gradually joined in, providing a sort of recitation under the violin melody, gradually developing in power as the voices took over. A very striking and rather romantic piece, very much a sense of RVW finding his voice. A companion piece to this, also setting Whitman, was The love song of the birds, a brilliant piece, impulsive and almost overflowing with ideas.

Finally the four performers gave us a seasonal song, RVW's 1919 arrangement of the traditional Wassail Song, a delightful end. But that was not quite the end as for and encore Bevan, Spence and Vann gave us RVW's Farmyard Song, a delightful piece with Bevan making all the farmyard noises.

The RVW songs and duets in the programme were all captured on disc as part of William Vann, Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence and Roderick Williams four-disc set of all 81 of RVW's folk-song settings on Albion Records [see my reviews of volume one and volume two]. 

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