Portraits of a Mind
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
On Wenlock Edge: Song cycle for tenor voice, string quartet and piano (1909)
Ian Venables (b. 1955)
Portraits of a Mind: Song cycle for high voice, string quartet and piano (2022)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Four Hymns arranged by Iain Farrington for tenor voice, string quartet and piano (1912-1914/2022)
Alessandro Fisher (tenor)
William Vann (piano)
Navarra String Quartet
rec.2022, St George’s Church, Headstone, Harrow, London, UK
Albion Records ALBCD 057 [59]

This is a welcome continuation of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th birthday celebrations in 2022. Ian Venables, commissioned to write a commemorative work, composed a fine song cycle that is a perfect anniversary gift. Portraits of a Mind takes five poem/verses by poets whose work RVW had set. Venables employs the same forces as the master’s On Wenlock Edge: high voice, string quartet and piano.

The Lark Ascending pays tribute to RVW’s arguably best-known piece. Three stanzas of George Meredith’s eponymous poem had been appended to that score. Venables says that he could not set the entire, rather wordy, poem. He cut it down to five verses and rearranged slightly. The burden of the poem is for the skylark to symbolise “nature and the human spirit, freed from its earthly concerns”. The instrumental introduction gives a delicious parody of RVW’s work.

Man makes delight his own was a setting of a poem by Ursula Wood, penned the year before her marriage to RVW in 1953. The two sections of the piece examine her husband’s creativity and its enduring quality. The song builds to a considerable vocal climax before returning to the meditative music of the opening bars.

I was introduced to English “lieder” by way of Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel sung by John Shirley-Quirk and accompanied by Viola Tunnard. It was also my introduction to the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson, beyond A Child’s Garden of Verses. Venables has taken one of my favourites from that volume, From a Railway Carriage. The performance here is intense and ecstatic: it does not reflect the passing scene as viewed through the eyes of a child. The singer needs to calm down a bit.

The fourth number is interesting. RVW had set several poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti in his 1904 song cycle The House of Life. In the same year, he wrote a Symphonic Rhapsody for orchestra, based on Christina Rossetti’s poem Echo; it was premiered at Bournemouth under Dan Godfrey, but the score has been lost. Venables has taken this poem and created what is almost a “scena”. The sentiments include “the conflict between longing and joy; reality and memory and life and death”. Unsurprisingly, this is a deeply moving and deliberately lugubrious setting.

Vaughan Williams set several poems and texts by the influential American genius Walt Whitman, most significantly A Sea Symphony. To conclude his cycle, Venables chose a short poem, A Clear Midnight, “about releasing the soul back into the universe”. He has suggested that it brings the song cycle full circle: the freedom of the human spirit symbolised by the lark’s ascent in the first song, now mirrored by Whitman’s faith in the Soul’s transcendence. This is truly a “holy place” to conclude this powerful tribute.

Portraits of a Mind is absolutety not a pastiche or a parody. Ian Venables has lived and breathed the elder composer’s music for most of his life. I think that he truly has absorbed the essence of RVW’s aesthetic.

My introduction to On Wenlock Edge was a centenary concert broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 12 October 1972. Richard Lewis gave a remarkable account of the orchestral edition. He was accompanied by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Sir Adrian Boult. (Other pieces performed that evening were the Symphony No. 8 in D minor and the second part of Job, a masque for dancing.) Somewhere, I still have my cassette tape made from the wireless that evening. The trouble is that, although I have heard the chamber version of On Wenlock Edge many times on record and live, I still have a marked preference for the orchestral one.

On Wenlock Edge was premiered on 15 November 1909 in the Aeolian Hall in London by Gervase Elwes, pianist Frederick Kiddle and the Schwiller Quartet. The work is based on a judicious selection of poems from A. E. Housman’s then ubiquitous volume A Shropshire Lad published in 1896. The poems, gloomy and tender, require the soloist to enter into the mood of the poetry and its musical setting.

The opening song, On Wenlock Edge, is a vocal tone poem, descriptive of the “wood’s in trouble” and “the gale, [that] plies the saplings double”. It is brisk and picturesque. From Far, From Eve and Morning is a solemn, perfectly stated reflection on the transience of life. The dialogue between the dead ploughman and his onetime friend in Is my team ploughing? is ghostly and tragically bitter. Alessandro Fisher gives a dramatic and almost violent account. Fortunately, RVW left out the line with “the keeper stands up to keep the goal” (George Butterworth included it). In full contrast, the noticeably short Oh, When I was in love with you is gentle and refined.

The most significant song in the cycle is the Ravelian Bredon Hill. The ensemble creates a gorgeous evocation of a hot summer’s day, the ringing of the carillon, the winter snows and the tolling bell. The death of the poet’s beloved is chilling in this performance, and the peroration “Oh, noisy bells, be dumb/I hear you, I will come” is tragic. The final number is amazing. The poem reflects a journey from the homely surroundings of the Shropshire landscape to the lonely streets of London and then out into the unknown, and possibly death. No matter what, the poet/singer will always remember Clun.

Before the outbreak of the First World War, Vaughan Williams had been working on another cycle of “mystical songs” to complement the Five he composed in1911. This time he chose to set texts by Jeremy Taylor, Isaac Watts, Richard Crashaw and a translation by Robert Bridges. Originally devised for tenor, viola obligato and string orchestra, the Four Hymns were later rescored for piano and viola. In 1925, it was performed in a version with the same forces as On Wenlock Edge; sadly, this score has been lost. The RVW Society commissioned Iain Farrington to “review the two published scores and make a new one with a quartet”. The liner notes further explain that “much of the orchestral string writing is taken by the quartet, with the viola taking a dual role of soloist and ensemble player”. The piano “fills and supports the sound”, creating a powerful and rich effect. I find this performance of the Four Hymns too intense for my taste, but I understand that the mystical nature of the verses may call for an ecstatic vocal delivery.

The excellent liner notes give all the information required to enjoy and appreciate the three song cycles. A little more detail for On Wenlock Edge would have been of interest. Ian Venables’s discussion of his Portraits of a mind is a detailed study. There are the texts of all the songs, and profiles of Venables, Iain Farrington and the performers.

Everyone gives a glorious performance, even if at times I find Alessandro Fisher’s voice just a bit too intense and over-dramatic, if not piercing. There seem to be few moments in these cycles of repose, reflection or intimacy.

Age tends to bring a singular problem: the first performance one had heard often remains the favourite. In my case, it is that account of On Wenlock Edge by Richard Lewis, followed closely by that by Ian Partridge in 1970, and – for a later recording – by Philip Langridge in 1990.

John France

Previous review: Nick Barnard (April 2023)

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