Serenade to Music
Exploring the sixteen singers chosen for the first performance
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Serenade to Music (1938)
Other solo works listed below
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Henry Wood
rec. 15 October, 1938 (serenade), 1926-1948 (solo items)
Texts included
Albion ALBCD059 [74]

I have a very tenuous connection to the first performance of RVW’s Serenade to Music. My late father told me that one day, before the Second World War, he came home from school, to be introduced to Isobel Baillie and Walter Widdop in the family drawing room. My grandfather often organised musical events in and around Manchester, and would liaise with soloists contracted to sing Messiah in the area. These two singers along with fourteen other performers provided the vocal forces for the Serenade’s premiere on 5 October 1938 during the Henry Wood Jubilee Concert at the Albert Hall.

Here is the added value of this disc: “for the first time” one can explore original recordings by the sixteen artists well-known and popular in their day. The liner notes say: “before you get to the Serenade, which is track 17, you can hear each of the sixteen voices for whom it was written”. The repertoire ranges from drawing-room ballads to grand opera, by way of Scottish folksong and English “lieder”. The final track is a bonus: Keith Falkner’s rendition of George Butterworth’s Is my Team Ploughing? from A Shropshire Lad. Falkner would have been one of the sixteen had he not been touring in the United States; he would have replaced Robert Easton.

One must be aware of differing singing styles prominent ninety-odd years ago. For example, John Francis, Chairman of the Vaughan Williams Society, told me that RVW and others hated the rapid vibrato that certain professional singers employed. He exhorted music festival competitors not to imitate it. That said, all the performances here are important historical documents that must be judged on their own terms.

Highlights for me include the Mull Fisher’s Love Song for contralto and harp. It was one of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser songs collected in the Highlands of Scotland. Hubert Parry’s restrained setting of John of Gaunt’s dying speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II (“This royal throne of Kings, this sceptred island”) is nowadays likely to be a casualty of cancel culture. There is Eva Turner’s beautiful performance of Puccini’s aria Vissi d’arte from Tosca. Heddle Nash gives a characteristic interpretation of RVW’s Linden Lea.

As for my familial connection, Walter Widdop’s rendition of A Request by Amy Woodforde-Finden is a pot-boiler from back in the day. And Isobel Baillie does a sterling job with the hackneyed Bach-Gounod Ave Maria.

One discovery was Granville Bantock’s Serenade from Six Jester Songs, sung beautifully by Muriel Brunskill. Surely there must be singers/pianist prepared to do a complete edition of Bantock’s songs.

It is especially important to me to have the original Henry Wood recording of RVW’s Serenade to Music, made on 15 October 1938 at the HMV Abbey Road Studio No.1. The sixteen soloists are listed below, and Sir Henry Wood conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra. I have heard this performance but did not have a copy in my record library. I was introduced to this work by the wonderful 1972 release by Sir Adrian Boult and the New Philharmonia Orchestra (ASD 2847). This has remained my “go-to” version.

Peter Reynolds remastered all tracks, and they have “scrubbed up” very well. Stephen Connock’s excellent, detailed liner notes give both commentary and context. All texts are included. The CD cover has a colourised version of a remarkable photograph (originally in black-and-white) of the sixteen soloists, the composer and the conductor taken at the Abbey Road Studios on the day of recording.

Normally, I am not an enthusiast of historical recordings, especially those from the days of 78rpm. Yet I found this disc absorbing and often most moving. Several of these pieces brought a tear to my eye (Elgar, Parry and Kennedy-Fraser). There is a magic in these tracks that defies time, stylistic parameters and logic.

John France

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J.S. Bach (1685-1750) / Charles Gounod (1818-1893)
Ave Maria
Isobel Baillie (soprano), Berkeley Mason (organ), cello and harp
rec. 1930
Arthur Somervell (1863-1937)
Shepherd’s Cradle Song
Elsie Suddaby (soprano), Madame Adami (piano)
rec. 1926
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Vissi d’arte from Tosca
Eva Turner (soprano), Sir Thomas Beecham and Orchestra
rec. 1928
Pietro Mascagni (1863-1945)
Santuzza’s Song from Cavalleria Rusticana,
Lillian Stiles-Allen (soprano), John Barbirolli and Orchestra
rec. 1927
Granville Bantock (1868-1946)
Serenade from Six Jester Songs,
Muriel Brunskill (contralto), with piano
rec. 1926
Marjory Kennedy-Fraser (1857-1930) / Kenneth MacLeod (1871-1955)
Mull Fisher’s Love Song
Astra Desmond (contralto), Maria Korchinska (harp)
rec. 1941
Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
Angel’s Farewell from Dream of Gerontius
Margaret Balfour (contralto), Royal Albert Hall Orchestra, Royal Choral Society/Edward Elgar
rec. 1927
Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918)
Mary Jarred (contralto), with Massed Choirs/Hugh Allen
rec. 1938
Amy Woodforde-Finden (1860-1919)
A Request
Walter Widdop (tenor), Percy Kahn (piano)
rec. 1926
Peter Warlock (1894-1930)
There is a Lady Sweet and Kind
Parry Jones (tenor), W.T. Best (piano)
rec. 1934
Giacomo Puccini
Ah! Mimi, tu più non torni from La Boheme
Frank Titterton (tenor), Roy Henderson (baritone) and orchestra
rec. 1929 or 1930
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Linden Lea
Heddle Nash (tenor), Gerald Moore (piano)
rec. 1948
George Butterworth (1885-1916)
Loveliest of Trees from A Shropshire Lad
Roy Henderson (baritone), Gerald Moore (piano)
rec. 1941
Charles Gounod
Heavenly Vision from Faust
Robert Easton (bass), Heddle Nash (tenor), BBC Choir, BBC Symphony Orchestra/Thomas Beecham
rec. 1929/1930
Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)
Prologue from I Pagliacci
Harold Williams (bass-baritone), British National Opera Company’s Orchestra/Eugene Goossens (snr)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Silent Noon
Norman Allin (bass), with piano
Serenade To Music
Isobel Baillie, Lilian Stiles-Allen, Elsie Suddaby, Eva Turner (sopranos)
Muriel Brunskill, Astra Desmond, Mary Jarred, Margaret Balfour (contraltos)
Heddle Nash, Frank Titterton, Walter Widdop, Parry Jones (tenors)
Harold Williams, Roy Henderson (baritones)
Robert Easton, Norman Allin (basses)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Henry Wood
rec. 1938
George Butterworth
Is my Team Ploughing? from A Shropshire Lad
Keith Falkner (bass-baritone), Gerald Moore (piano)
rec. 1940