Portraits 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 (2021)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Four Hymns (1912-14, arr. Iain Farrington)
Alessandro Fisher (tenor)
William Vann (piano)
The Navarra String Quartet
rec. November 2022, St Georges Church, Headstone, Harrow, UK
Texts included
Albion Records ALBCD057 ]59]

I heard these artists perform most of the music that appears on this CD at a lunchtime concert in Oxford during October 2022. That concert, which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, was part of the annual Oxford Lieder Festival. The only difference between the two programmes is that, owing to broadcast time constraints, only one of the Four Hymns, ‘Lord, Come Away!’ was performed; it opened the programme. I reviewed that concert for Seen and Heard International and though I can remember a lot about the event and what I thought of both music and performances, I have carefully avoided revisiting my review so that I approached this disc as objectively as possible. This recording was made just over three weeks after the concert, so everything must have been very fresh in the minds of the artists.

VW originally conceived the Four Hymns for tenor with viola obbligato and string orchestra in which form it was intended for the 1914 Three Choirs Festival. Had the Festival been staged as it is nowadays in late July, the premiere might have gone ahead; but in those days, it took place in September and the outbreak of World War I in August meant that the 1914 Worcester Festival was cancelled. The Four Hymns were eventually premiered – in Cardiff – in 1920. In that same year VW arranged the work for tenor, viola and piano. There was, however, a third version in which the accompaniment was for piano quintet. It is not known whether that arrangement was made by the composer – the score is lost – but it is known that Steuart Wilson took part in a London performance in 1925. At the behest of The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, Iain Farrington has recently made an arrangement of the work for tenor and piano quintet. It’s impossible, of course, that he could have exactly recreated the lost 1925 version but the results of his work sound entirely idiomatic to me.

Not long ago, Nicky Spence recorded the Four Hymns as part of an outstanding VW disc for Hyperion (review). He used the piano and viola version and comparing his recording with the present one there are gains and losses. The loss is that in the 1920 version the viola stands out much more, whereas it is more of a primus inter pares when the instrument is part of a piano quintet. The gain, however, lies in the richer textures that the piano quintet can provide. In the first Hymn, ‘Lord! Come away!’ the urgency and fervour of Alessandro Fisher’s singing makes an immediate and favourable impression. We read in the notes that Ursula Vaughan Williams described the texts which VW set this work as ‘romantic poems of divine love and longing’. She’s absolutely right, of course, and the description applies in spades to the second hymn ‘Who is this Fair One?’ The way Fisher sings this song is completely in line with Ursula’s view of the poetry as a whole. The third Hymn, ‘Come Love, come Lord’ is quieter and more reflective, offering a nice contrast with the ardour of the two previous settings. The final Hymn, ‘Evening Hymn (O Gladsome Light)’ is the one in which I hear the viola most prominently, especially at the beginning. The performances of all of the Hymns are excellent and, as I said, I find Iain Farrington’s arrangement very convincing.

Writing in the booklet about his new song cycle, Ian Venables says of On Wenlock Edge that “it is this work that, in my opinion, put the chamber song cycle on the map in England: composers such as Ivor Gurney and Peter Warlock would later add to this wonderful genre”. I agree with him, though modestly he refrains from mentioning his own significant contributions to the genre. There have been a number of very fine recordings of VW’s early masterpiece. Amongst those which I especially admire are those by James Gilchrist (Linn CKD 296), Mark Padmore (review) and the wonderful 1970 EMI recording by Ian Partridge. Alessandro Fisher’s recording is in a different category, I think, because he has a voice which is a bigger instrument than any of those three distinguished tenors; in terms of vocal amplitude, he’s closer, I think, to Nicky Spence, who included On Wenlock Edge on the Hyperion disc I referenced earlier. Comparing those two artists, it seems to me that the sound of Spence’s voice is the rounder of the two; Fisher’s tone has a bit more of an edge to it – a description which I do not apply in any pejorative sense. Both singers are very insightful in their approach to the cycle and if I express a marginal preference for the sound of Nicky Spence’s voice that doesn’t diminish in any way the achievement of Fisher in these songs.

Right at the start of ‘On Wenlock Edge’ I was struck by the ardour which all six performers bring to the music. I recall that at the Oxford concert the clarity of Alessandro Fisher’s tone and diction made a strong impression on me and that’s equally true of the present recording. All the performers bring the turbulence of VWs writing vividly to life. The performances of all six songs are excellent but I want to single out two more. ‘Is My Team Ploughing?’ is given most imaginatively. Fisher contrasts the voices of the two protagonists most effectively. The withdrawn, almost veiled tone he deploys for the words of the dead man makes us all too aware that we are hearing him speak from beyond the grave. The surviving friend’s words are voiced with increasing impatience until we realise, in the last stanza, that the survivor also feels guilt. The instrumental accompaniment is acutely sensitive to the words and to what Fisher is doing with the vocal line. That’s also the case in ‘Bredon Hill’. Here, the instrumental introduction is full of atmosphere and subtlety. As for Fisher, he weaves a strong narrative thread. The icy chill that the players achieve before the fourth stanza (‘But when the snows at Christmas’) establishes a pregnant atmosphere and all six musicians deliver the remainder of the song dramatically, drawing us into the tragic dénouement. My memory of the live performance of this song at Oxford was that it was a riveting experience; the performers replicated that in the recording studio. In summary, this is a very fine account of On Wenlock Edge and a significant addition to the discography of the cycle.

It’s rare, but by no means unprecedented, for Albion Records to issue recordings of music by composers other than Vaughan Williams. However, it is more than usually pertinent that they should have hastened to record and release the song cycle Portraits of a Mind by Ian Venables since the work was commissioned by The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of VW; fittingly, the premiere took place just nine days after the exact anniversary. I understand that Ian Venables was given a free hand to choose the form which the commissioned work should take. It was his decision, therefore, to write for the same forces that VW employed in On Wenlock Edge. With his usual perceptive eye for texts, Venable selected five poems which have strong links with VW in some way or other. Crucially, each of the poems fits in with Venables’ overall scheme for the cycle. As he writes in the booklet: “as the focus of the work would be Vaughan Williams himself, I wanted to explore the principal elements that informed his creativity and so ‘paint’ a musical portrait in which each song reflects a different aspect of his creative mind……namely: Nature; the Meaning of Art; Love; Death and Transcendence.”

Very appropriately, the first poem that Ian Venables has set is ‘The Lark Ascending’ by George Meredith (1828-1909). Famously, Meredith’s verses inspired VW’s rhapsodic work for solo violin and orchestra. The original poem, published in 1881, runs to 122 lines; understandably, Venables felt that a considerable amount of pruning would be needed for a musical setting – has any other composer set the poem, in whole or in part, I wonder? He edited the poem down to just 20 lines, capturing, I think, the essence of Meredith’s thoughts. In the slow instrumental introduction Venables includes, perhaps inevitably, a lovely solo line for the first violin. However, this doesn’t sound in any sense an affected gesture but rather a very natural homage to VW’s piece of the same name. The music is very beautiful; the vocal line is lyrical and floats over the instrumental textures, just as a bird in flight might do. Fisher sings with sensitivity and great expression while the playing of William Vann and The Navarra String Quartet is ideally judged. The cycle is off to a beguiling start, the music making the listener keen to hear more.

The second song sets a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams. ‘Man makes delight his own’ was written in 1953, the year before she and Ralph were married; as Ian Venables notes, the poem is “a loving tribute to her future husband”. Once again, the tempo is fairly slow. The song begins in reflective vein though it becomes rather more impassioned in the second half of the first stanza. For the second of the two stanzas Venables returns to the contemplative mood in which he began. I don’t think it’s coincidental that I found particularly affecting the music to which Venables sets the line ‘his music wakes like Beauty from her night’ in the second stanza. This is a lovely song and the performers do full justice to it. The central song which, the composer says, acts as the cycle’s “energetic scherzo” sets a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, the poet whose verses VW set in Songs of Travel. The choice is quite unusual: ‘From a Railway Carriage’ which is part of the collection A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885). I can’t better Ian Venables’ description of the poem: “Viewed through the eyes of a child, the poem arouses all the excitement of a rapidly changing landscape as seen from a moving train”. The vocal line is eager and full of wonder while the instrumental parts brilliantly evoke the pace and motion of the speeding train. This movement contains the only fast music per se in the cycle and I remember suggesting in my review of the concert premiere that perhaps it might have been a good idea to include a second song in quick tempo. Now that I’ve had the chance to evaluate the cycle at more leisure, I think that was a superficial reaction, based on a single hearing: there’s more than enough musical variety in the other four songs, even if the pace of each of them is on the slow side.

For the fourth song Venables turns to the poetry of Christina Rossetti (1830-1894). It was her brother, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whose poetry VW set in the cycle House of Life (1904) but around the same time Christina’s poem ‘Echo’ inspired VW to compose a Symphonic Rhapsody for orchestra which, sadly, is now lost. By way of compensation, as it were, Ian Venables has made a setting of that very poem for this cycle of songs. The setting is slow and intense. There is, I think, an element of darkness alongside the passion in Rossetti’s words and it seems to me that Venables brings out this duality in his music. For me, this song seems to lie at the heart of the cycle – though the composer may not have intended it as such. I think it’s the best of the five songs, which is saying something given the quality of its four companions. The present performance strikes me as well-nigh ideal. Of all the poets whose verse VW set during his long career, Walt Whitman probably meant more to him than any other; so, it’s fitting that Portraits of a Mind should conclude with a Whitman song. Venables has selected just four lines of Whitman’s poetry, yet ‘A Clear Midnight’ seems to me to speak volumes and to be a wonderful envoi in this homage to VW. Once again, the music is slow and intense; it also has warmth and harmonic richness. The song strikes a mood of pensive contemplation and when the singer has finished, a brief instrumental postlude brings both song and cycle to a deeply satisfying close.

I’ve long felt that Ian Venables is one of the most significant composers of English song over the last fifty years or more. Not only is he a worthy heir to Butterworth, Finzi, Gurney and, of course, Vaughan Williams himself, but he has also carried on that tradition and significantly enriched it. I think that Portraits of a Mind is likely to come to be regarded as one of his finest achievements in the genre and I feel sure that The Ralph Vaughan Williams Society will feel that VW has been worthily celebrated in these songs. Though I hope that other musicians will take up these fine songs and perform them, the bar has been set very high indeed by the present performers. Alessandro Fisher sings the songs with great sensitivity and accomplishment; he seems perfectly in tune with both the words and the music. He could have wished for no finer support than he receives from William Vann and The Navarra String Quartet who play with great understanding and finesse.

As is always the case with Albion Records, presentational standards are very high. I’m not sure that I’ve previously heard any recordings made in St Georges Church, Headstone, Harrow but it seems to have a most sympathetic acoustic with just the right degree of resonance. The venue may be new but the recording team of producer Andrew Walton and engineer Deborah Spanton are Albion ‘old hands’. Once again, they’ve captured the performances in excellent, clear sound. The documentation is excellent with very good essays on the VW pieces by John Francis and Iain Farrington, while Ian Venables contributes an enlightening essay about his own piece.

This CD is a wonderful, enduring celebration of Ralph Vaughan Williams.

John Quinn

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Previous review: Nick Barnard (April 2023)