Maconchy Vaughan Williams Songs of Vol 2 Resonus

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)
Songs – Volume 2
James Geer (tenor)
Ronald Woodley (piano)
rec. 2022, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Resonus RES10317 [77]

James Geer and Ronald Woodley continue their survey of songs by Elizabeth Maconchy and Ralph Vaughan Williams (review of Volume 1). They begin with RVW’s Four Last Songs. (The score calls for mezzo-soprano or baritone; here is has been transposed for tenor.) His wife Ursula wrote all the texts. It has been said that the songs may have been meant as parts of two separate cycles. Procris and Menelaus explore Classical themes from the mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome. Tired and Hand, Eyes, and Heart are concerned with love between partners. According to the liner notes – from which I will quote, with gratitude – later research has suggested another grouping of the texts. Whatever the original intent and scope of the proposed publication, the theme of all four songs is Love. The mood of the songs varies. Procris and Menelaus are like accompanied recitatives with vocal line and piano part “doing their own thing”. The other two are more melodic, with straightforward accompaniments.

Vaughan Williams’s The House of Life sets six poems from the first part of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s collection of sonnets. Written slightly earlier than the ubiquitous Songs of Travel, this cycle looks more towards European songwriters such as Schumann, Wagner and “perhaps Duparc”. The entire cycle has been described as “a meditation on the concept of duality: life and death, time and eternity, erotic and Platonic love, matter and spirit” (Vaughan Williams Project). I associate this work with a baritone (Roderick Williams, Benjamin Luxon and others), but James Geer’s performance is satisfying in every way.

An aside: the RVW discography cites sixteen recordings of The House of Life, but only five of the Four Last Songs.

In 1938, Elizabeth Maconchy’s husband, William Le Fanu, translated seven poems from the Anacreontea, a volume of about sixty short verses by post-Classical Greek authors. The poems talk about wine, beauty, erotic love and the worship of Dionysus. Maconchy set them to music as The Garland: Variations on a Theme. Volume 1 of this recording project included two unpublished songs from the cycle. The songs on this disc – published in 1984 as a group of four – are delightful, often quite beautiful, not challenging, and full of colourful imagery, both verbal and musical. As a pendant, another number from the cycle, The Swallow, has been included as a separate entity, to respect the composer’s desire to have the published set “retaining its own identity”.

There are several standalone Maconchy songs here. The Exequy (Funeral Rites) sets a few lines from Henry King, Bishop of Chichester’s long poem Exequy on his wife. He wrote it when he was mourning the death of his young spouse. It is not an easy piece to listen to. The musical texture is astringent, often intense, but sometimes quite beautiful. The liner notes suggest that the “tolling accompaniment” nods to Maurice Ravel’s Le Gibet from Gaspard de la Nuit.

Next come two settings of the Anglo-Irish poet Sheila Wingfield (later Viscountess Powerscourt). Sailor’s Song of the Two Balconies provides a marked contrast between bleakness (of Northern climes) and the warmth of the Hispanic imagery in the “middle eight”. The Disillusion is equally gloomy. Due to copyright issues, the texts are not given in the liner notes.

The Poet-Wooer is Maconchy’s early song with words by the Jacobean/Carolinian poet Ben Jonson. Much of the vocal line is unaccompanied, and the piano offers the lightest of touches. Bleakness is again the watchword for Maconchy’s setting of Emily Brontë’s Sleep Brings No Joy to Me. It matches the mood of Emily’s sad memories and her suffering in life. In a Fountain Court, with a text by Arthur Symons, is much closer to RVW’s aesthetic with its gently moving modal melodies and harmonies. The music perfectly mirrors “The fountain murmuring of sleep / A drowsy tune”.

The final song, really a scena, is Maconchy’s How Samson Bore Away the Gates of Gaza (the original version). I do not like this caricature/pastiche of the biblical story, which is confused and overblown. It is based on a William McGonagall-esque text by the modernist American poet Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931). The liner notes suggest that the “extended, dramatic setting deliberately plays with certain parodic Middle Eastern harmonic clichés of the period and seems not to take itself entirely seriously.” For this listener, these ten minutes seem to go on for ever. Still, there are good things in the vivid vocal line and the sympathetic accompaniment; just a pity about the text.

Like in Volume 1, James Geer and Ronald Woodley’s performances are second to none, as are the recording and the documentation. It was a splendid notion to pair RVW with his erstwhile pupil Elizabeth Maconchy. This is another excellent opportunity tor explore the vocal music of two important English composers.

John France

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Ralph Vaughan Williams
Four Last Songs (publ. posth. 1960)
1. Procris
2. Tired
3. Hands, Eyes, and Heart
4. Menelaus
Elizabeth Maconchy
5. The Exequy (1956)
The Garland: Variations on a Theme (1938)
6. The Garland
7. Old and Young
8. I Would I Were a Mirror
9. No End to Love
10. Sailor’s Song of the Two Balconies (1941)
11. The Disillusion (1941)
12. The Swallow (1938)
13. The Poet-Wooer (1928)
14. Sleep Brings No Joy to Me (1937)
15. In Fountain Court (1929)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
The House of Life (1903)
16. Love-Sight
17. Silent Noon
18. Love’s Minstrels
19. Heart’s Haven
20. Death in Love
21. Love’s Last Gift
Elizabeth Maconchy
22. How Samson Bore Away the Gates of Gaza (original version of 1937)