Songs travel ALBCD055

The First Songs of Travel
Richard Standen (bass-baritone)
Frederick Stone (piano)
rec. 1954, Westminster’s London Studio; originally released on Westminster XWN 18710 12” LP
Albion Records ALBCD055 [57]

In parallel with their unique and valuable new performances of Vaughan Williams’ music, Albion Records scour the archives for historical recordings worthy of re-release and re-evaluation. This new disc entitled “The First Songs of Travel” is just such a collection. Dating from 1954 these performances appeared on a Westminster LP with the slightly cumbersome title; “Vaughan Williams and Others English Songs – Sea Ballads” with bass-baritone Richard Standen accompanied by Frederick Stone.

This CD is a faithful and exact reproduction of the LP – which strikes me for the early 50’s as a very generous playing length for early long players of 57:09. Before considering the music or the performances a quick word about the technical and presentational side of this release. This would appear to be something of a personal project for RVW Society trustee Ronald Grames. Grames not only did the transfer, restoration and editing from two copies of the original LP, he also wrote the extensive and informative liner essay dealing with both the pieces concerned but also the specific performances here as well as biographical information about the performers. Lastly he contributed the cover design which incorporates the original LP cover into an attractive montage which includes a reproduction of Edward Williams’ The Old Abbey Ruins. As ever with an Albion production, the actual presentation is a delight in itself with the extensive, informative and well-written notes (and all song texts) complimented by attractive images of the LP centre, performers and much else besides. In a note on the restoration Grames refers to the tricky balance to be found between the removal of surface noise and ‘clicks’ with maintaining the musical element on an LP that had been pressed at a low level due to the long side lengths. I have to say he has done a triumphantly good job. Of course there is a faint and frankly undisturbing LP “swish” but the voice itself is appealingly present well-focussed and undistorted with the balance between voice and piano favouring the former but not in a musically-distorting way. Indeed for a mono recording the sound-stage is actually very good. Standen’s voice is full and well-caught; not having heard other recordings of his singing it is hard not to imagine this is a faithful reproduction of his sound. Stone’s piano is a little light in its bass timbres and I suspect a modern production would make it a more equal partner but again this strikes me as remarkably good for a near 70 year old recording.

So to the performers; the liner discusses in some detail Standen’s career and reputation. Apparently Vaughan Williams approved of this LP as well as his singing of the Jesus in Vaughan Williams’ beloved Bach Passions. Grames mentions “an artist of skill and sensitivity… with an attractive, forwardly placed and commanding voice (if a little fluttery of vibrato at times).” This strikes me as absolutely right to which I would add excellent diction – the ear quickly accepts the old fashioned pronunciation of the day where the “a” as in “and” is pronounced “end”. Other notable features are the evenness of his vocal production across his entire range at whatever dynamics as well as excellent breath control allied to a good sense of musical line. His high notes in particular do not harden or pinch. The forward placement is a valid comment and in some of the heartier sea songs such as Mother Carey or Drake’s Drum diminishes the ‘burliness’ other singers aptly find. An interpretative feature in some of the songs is what I might term “no nonsense”. While he is alert to the context and word-setting he is not a singer who makes a mannered expressive musical intervention at every opportunity. Possibly this leaves some of the songs feeling a little plain but I prefer this to the over-interpreted approach. I did wonder if some of the songs were more established in his repertoire than others. The ‘lived-with’ songs; Silent Noon, Linden Lea and others receive especially sensitive performances. Pianist Frederick Stone is a near-forgotten name but the liner refers to him as “a BBC staff accompanist, [Stone] was ubiquitous in broadcasts from the mid-1930’s until his apparent retirement 30 years later… his name is primarily associated with Kathleen Ferrier…”. Stone’s playing is clean, articulate and attentive. Partly due to the positioning of the keyboard there is a distinct sense of accompaniment rather than musical partnership so the primary focus remains with the voice.

So to the music and performances. The main interest for Vaughan Williams admirers is the first half of the recital which contains eleven of his best known and most popular songs. Best-known now but in 1954 this recording featured the first “complete” Songs of Travel with Standen providing the first commercial recording of five of the eight songs. Eight because the valedictory ninth; I have trod the Upward and the Downward Slope was not known about until after the composer’s death. Standen retains the originally published order which breaks the song into two sets; a group of three, a group of four and Wither Must I wander – the first to be written placed last. Given the success of these songs at the time and the composer’s status as Britain’s greatest living composer I find it surprising that the cycle took fifty years to be recorded. Today it is standard fare for any/every British baritone so it is hard for the modern listener to hear these songs ‘new’. As mentioned Standen’s no nonsense approach and vocal security are major benefits and the recital as a whole is musically appealing and never less than intelligently sung.

Although the liner lists the final order of the eight Songs of Travel, Grames has chosen to retain the order as they appeared on the LP release. I think this is absolutely the right choice. Not only does it allow the listener to hear the songs as they were initially published but by placing the “single”/first published Whither must I wander last it gives that song a rather effective/unexpected role as a kind of epilogue to the cycle as presented. Bright is the Ring of Words (usually 8th but here 2nd) gives Standen a good opportunity to show the focus and power of his voice while The Infinite Shining Heavens (usually 6th here 7th) has a poise and stillness that benefits from his technical vocal control. Of the other Vaughan Williams settings Silent Noon receives a very fine rapt performance and I like the simple but effective light and shade of Linden Lea. Grames in his liner rightly points to the poetic shortcomings of The Water Mill which does sound oddly arch but this performance is as effective as many. Comparing a historical recording to a modern one is usually pointless but in terms of the style I find it useful to listen to Standen’s Three Salt-Water Ballads alongside the version from Bryn Terfel on his second collection of English song (which as it happens also includes Silent Noon and Linden Lea). Terfel was in fine and expressive voice when he recorded this disc as long ago as 2004 but this is an example of a singer taking every opportunity to shade a word or phrase with “meaning”. In that context I have to say I prefer Standen’s direct and unaffected style.

Grames makes the valid point that at the time of recording quite a lot of the songs were by living composers with Michael Head’s Six Sea Songs of which two are given here having been published in 1949. For post-War songs these two Head settings sit comfortably in the tradition of Chappell ballads both in terms of the texts and their settings. Again Standen and Stone offer direct and unmannered performances that are neat and nimble. The famous Stanford and Ireland settings get very effective performances that sound well-established and convincing. As mentioned other singers can make Drake’s Drum more of the quarter deck than the recital room but Standen paces the song well and it is not hard to understand the enduring popularity of both this and The Old Superb. I like the slightly muted pensive quality in Standen’s Sea Fever. Interestingly Grames reminds the listener that poet John Masefield did not approve of the Ireland setting precisely because it emphasises the reflective quality in its Lento tempo marking that presumably Masefield did not agree with. But perhaps Ireland – and by extension Standen – find an ambiguity in the text and its meaning that not even the poet intended. The two following songs; Four by the Clock by Albert Mallinson and A Christmas Carol [from Christmas Eve at Sea] by Malcolm Davidson were both new to me. Both are distinctly impressive songs that receive powerful and engaging performances here. The former was written by Mallinson for his wife and had been recorded before Standen by deeper-voiced female singers. Grames describes this performances as; “quite effective and Stone’s weighty accompaniment in the bass octaves…. adds to the melancholy effect”. To my ear this is more than just quite effective – apparently Mallinson composed some 400 songs. Even rarer is Davidson’s A Christmas Carol. Grames suggests that this may be the only recording of any work by Davidson – a Stanford pupil, wounded in World War I who seems to have composed into the 1930’s. Davidson’s setting of another of Masefield’s Salt-Water Ballads is extremely well-paced within its 2:53 time frame and is poetically and musically very good indeed. Standen’s performance again taps into all his musical virtues of long lines, even tone and wide dynamic range. Hard to understand how this song has not survived in the active repertoire of more singers. Standen completes his recital with the famous and rollicking Captain Stratton’s Fancy. More modern versions may well be more muscular but within the style and format of this recital this is a satisfying and effective conclusion.

By the nature of archive/historical performances this is unlikely to be a first choice for collectors coming new to any of this repertoire. However, as a fine example of recital singing during the 1950’s this is impressive and insightful. Allied to the excellence of the audio restoration and the attractiveness of Albion’s presentation this makes for a wholly enjoyable hour’s music-making regardless of age.

Nick Barnard

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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872 – 1958)
Songs of Travel Part 1 (1905)
The Vagabond
Bright is the ring of words
The Roadside Fire
Songs of Travel Part 2 (1907)
Let Beauty Awake
Youth and Love
In Dreams
The Infinite Shining Heavens
Whither Must I Wander (1901)
The House of Life (1903): Silent Noon
Four Poems by Fredegond Shove (1922): The Watermill
Linden Lea
Frederick Keel (1871-1954)
Three Salt-Water Ballads (1919): Port of Many Ships
Trade Winds
Mother Carey (as told me by the bo’sun)
Michael Head (1900-1976)
Six Sea Songs (1949): Limehouse Reach
Sweethearts and wives
Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Songs of the Sea Op.91 (1904): Drake’s Drum
The “Old Superb”
John Ireland (1879-1962)
Sea Fever (1913)
Albert Mallinson (1870-1946)
Four by the clock (1901)
Malcolm Davidson (1891-1949)
A Christmas Carol (1920)
Peter Warlock (1894-1930)
Captain Stratton’s Fancy (Rum) (1922)