Portraits of a Mind VW Albion ALBCD057

Portraits of a Mind
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
On Wenlock Edge (1909)
Ian Venables (b.1955)
Portraits of a Mind, Op 54 (2022)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Four Hymns (arr. Iain Farrington)
Alessandro Fisher (tenor)
William Vann (piano)
Navarra String Quartet
rec. 2022 St. George’s Church, Headstone, Harrow, UK
Albion Records ALBCD057 [59]

For the latest offering from Albion Records – the recording arm of the Vaughan Williams Society – the producers have created a cannily planned programme of familiar masterpiece, unknown new work and interesting novelty. The connecting thread is that all three works are for tenor accompanied by piano and string quartet. This is such an effective combination that I am always surprised that the repertoire is not wider than it is. As such, the two new works are extremely valuable additions to that repertoire.

Tenor Alessandro Fisher is new to me as is the Navarra String Quartet. William Vann on piano has been a stalwart of many recent Albion releases although usually as the conductor/director of choral groups rather than as a pianist. Vann and the Navarra are excellent – musically sensitive and alert as well as technically adept. But the real ‘star’ of this disc has to be the instantly attractive and impressive singing of Fisher. Biographical information is fairly sparse but it seems he undertook postgraduate studies at the London Guildhall School where he won a first prize in 2016.

The disc opens with the certified masterpiece that is On Wenlock Edge. This is a remarkable song cycle on several levels; one of the composer’s earliest works in which several facets of his composing voice are most fully and successfully articulated, his absorption of his studies with Ravel and the influence of folksong. Indeed in English music of the time there had been nothing quite like it. Although not the first cycle to explore A E Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad” – that honour must go to Arthur Somervell’s 1904 A Shropshire Lad – Vaughan Williams’ cycle remains probably the best known and most often performed (alongside George Butterworth’s). No mean feat given that the Lieder Net Archive currently lists some 646 different settings. There are several things vocally in Fisher’s favour that make him so effective in this particular repertoire. These are after all verses about a young man and it could be argued that they embody a young person’s reactions to the universal truths of love, life and death. Tonally Fisher has exactly the right kind of youthful voice but more than that he imbues the songs with a kind of ardent impetuosity that is wholly appropriate. His diction is excellent which when allied to a natural dramatic sense makes the most of this theatrical group of songs.

Vaughan Williams writes an accompaniment that is rich in illustrative detail from the storm-swept “woods in trouble” that open the cycle to the tolling bells of Bredon Hill and the heat of a summer’s day in the same song to the doomsday vision that closes the cycle. All of these are beautifully evoked by the quintet but Fisher is quite excellent at subtle word-pointing that shows a naturally impressive sense of theatre. But all of these considerable interpretative skills are crowned by the actual sound of his voice. I have no idea if his first name Alessandro suggests some Italian heritage but there is an Italianate ring to his voice with its ease in alt and attractive vibrant and tight vibrato that is quite lovely as well as slightly unusual in this repertoire.

On Wenlock Edge has been in the back pocket of just about every major British tenor of the last century and in the last fifty years many of them have made recordings too No surprise that many of those performances are very fine indeed. My personal favourites include the great Ian Partridge with the Music Group of London, Philip Langridge with the Britten Quartet and Howard Shelley and James Gilchrist, Anna Tilbrook and the Fitzwilliam Quartet. These three versions embody varying styles of singing and presentation from Partridge’s beautiful but ‘held’ performance via Langridge’s more powerful reading and Gilchrist’s drama. But none have quite the expressive range of Fisher which – bold statement though this is – strikes me as the more complete and compelling performance I have heard. He makes some interesting choices too. His “ghost” in Is my team ploughing? is not as blanched or emotionally distant as some but the high A at the climactic “dead man’s sweetheart” rings out with thrilling near operatic vocal authority. Elsewhere in the cycle he is also very good at making the folksy element in the poetry – which can on occasion seem slightly twee – direct and indeed touching. As are the closing lines of Clun where “tis a long way further than Knighton….” are sung with disarming simplicity and directness. Listen to those little leans on “long” or “thunder” for examples of how intuitively right these choices are. In the same passage Vann finds an ideal stillness with the string dynamics faithfully and effectively observed – something that is not always the case.

When Ian Venables was invited by the Vaughan Williams Society to mark the 150th Anniversary of the composer’s birth, he chose the voice and piano quintet combination in acknowledgement of the significance of On Wenlock Edge in the development of sub-genre of chamber song cycle. Previously Venables had written his own Housman cycle, but here he creates a five song anthology set with each poet set by or significant for Vaughan Williams. The resulting complete cycle which gives the disc its title of “Portraits of a Mind” runs for 21:24 in this its premiere recording. The songs are; The Lark Ascending ­ – George Meredith (an abbreviated setting of the poem that inspired the famous work), Man makes his own delight ­– Ursula Vaughan Williams, From a Railway Carriage – Robert Louis Stevenson, Echo – Christina Rosetti and A Clear Midnight – Walt Whitman. In his useful liner note Venables explains that the concept for the cycle was to illustrate key motivations that influenced Vaughan Williams’ Art. So while there is no narrative through-thread to this cycle the selected poems are responses to Nature, The meaning of Art, Love, Death and transcendence. Of course, as mentioned, all the poets were writers Vaughan Williams loved and set himself.

The first two songs are notable for their long expressive sinuous vocal lines which are very well suited to Fisher’s voice although I do not think the cycle was written with his voice specifically in mind. Venables does not seem to be striving for the explicit compressed drama of “Wenlock Edge” with the rich sonorities of the ensemble and the elegance of the vocal line of greater concern. Yes there is a sense of a train rumbling along the track in the third song and the disembodied dream-apparition in Rossetti’s Echo but these are more a consequence of the text rather than a desire to slavishly illustrate them. Again I have nothing but praise for the sensitivity of Fisher’s response to the texts and their settings. Likewise the accompanying quintet play beautifully. Venables’ writing for the quintet is not as demanding as Vaughan Williams’ which often strains at a near-orchestral sweep and scale – no surprise that a successful orchestral version of On Wenlock Edge exists. But it still requires skilled and alert playing. Venables’ harmonic palette is naturally warmly rich and tonal and as such is well-suited to this type of music. Sensibly, Venables avoids making any musical allusion to the Vaughan Williams work for the opening The Lark Ascending instead simply evoking the rapturous vision of; “a song of light, and pierces air, to reach the shining tops of day.” Repeatedly I was struck while listening to this how Fisher’s ardent tightly focussed voice works so well for these songs. Too often English tenors in their upper registers resort to a kind of fluty head-voice that sucks the passion out of their singing or else the tone can harden and sound forced. Not Fisher whose voice remains strikingly free, true and powerful across his entire range.

The relative neglect of Vaughan Williams’ Four Hymns is surprising, especially since, as the excellent liner note from Iain Farrington and John Francis points out, it builds on the style and aesthetic of two popular works; The Five Mystical Songs and The Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. This impressive set was originally written between 1912-14 for tenor, viola obbligato and string orchestra. World War I delayed the first performance until 1920 when the composer prepared an alternative version for voice, viola and piano. The chamber version is not a simple reworking of the original. Now we are given a third version newly arranged by Iain Farrington for voice and quintet with the solo viola still present but very much integrated into the quartet texture. Farrington collaborated with William Vann on the recent SOMM disc of Holst’s church music and the best compliment one can pay his work on this arrangement is that it sounds wholly effective and idiomatic. A quick look at the catalogue suggests that there have been three recordings of the original version; Matthew Best and his Corydon orchestra accompanying John Mark Ainsley on Hyperion, David Willcocks and the LPO with Langridge on EMI and Andrew Kennedy’s recording on an earlier Albion disc (review). For the chamber version the choice lies between Ian Partridge and the Music Group of London on EMI, Nicky Spence on Hyperion (review) and Mark Padmore on Albion (review). The greatest compliment you can pay Farrington’s new arrangement is that you do not miss either of the original versions. Whether due to the arrangement, the recording or performing choices, the viola within this new version does not retain the sense of a second commenting/solo voice that it does previously. Much of the time it is playing the same material as in the earlier versions, but the actual notes and sound are more integrated into the collective group.

There is a visionary quality to the texts, a barely contained sense of religious ecstatic revelation that is very compelling. Fisher gives the opening Lord! Come Away! a sense of zealous fervour that is again rather theatrical certainly when directly compared to the beautiful but more restrained Ainsley. But then the Hyperion recording also places the accompanying string group much further back in a warm acoustic so the immediacy of their playing is less apparent too. In the third hymn Come Love, come Lord Fisher is able to float a beautiful pianissimo to prove he is not just about dynamic projection and ringing tone. The work and the disc ends with O Gladsome light with Vaughan Williams’ setting beautifully reflective with string lines unwinding over a descending ‘bell-ringing’ bass line with the closing bars given to the solo viola and piano fading into another of the composer’s favoured unknown regions. As the liner points out this is Vaughan Williams’ first anthology song cycle and is yet another example of this self-professed agnostic producing music to religious texts of remarkable beauty and clear sincerity. It has to be hoped that this very fine new arrangement will result in more performances of this moving and thoughtful work.

So all in all a remarkably successful and rewarding disc. Given the use of the same instrumental group and solo voice there is considerable variation across the recital with each piece rewarding both in isolation and as part of the complete programme. I do understand that responses to a voice are very personal and that some collectors will not be as wholly excited by the actual sound of Alessandro Fisher’s tenor voice as I have been. But what is not up for debate is the exceptional quality of the music-making by all of the performers on this disc. This must have been two days of intense recording for all involved and it is a testament to the focus of the performers that the level of execution and energy stays so high. Likewise the Albion production is very fine – the church acoustic is warmly supportive without being bloatingly resonant, the balance between voice, strings and piano is ideal to my ear. Fisher’s diction is so fine that the full texts printed in the booklet are useful but not required to comprehend the settings. The Albion booklet is its usual model of presentation with detailed notes from John Francis alongside composer and arranger as well as biographies, texts and session photographs. As I mentioned at the start of the review, this is a style of singing English song that is not often encountered but one I liked very much and would be eager to hear more. Fisher is still near the beginning of his career and the hope must be that he will be careful in his choice of repertoire and roles to ensure that he will be singing this well and with this level of musical insight and identification for decades to come.

Nick Barnard

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