End of My Days
Ruby Hughes (soprano)
Manchester Collective
rec. 2022, Stoller Hall, Manchester, UK
Full texts included
Reviewed in both stereo and surround sound
BIS BIS-2628 SACD [67]

The aftermath of the pandemic and its attendant lockdowns continues to haunt many of the discs that are being issued at the present time. Some were recorded during that peculiar period; others, such as the programme which features on this imaginatively planned and perfectly executed disc, were conceived at that point, as Ruby Hughes explains in her eloquent introduction. I first played it through a couple of weeks ago – it moved me then but I needed some space for the concept and the music to settle. Soon afterwards I watched Breathtaking, Jed Mercurio’s television adaptation of Dr Rachael Clarke’s furious pandemic diary. It’s a faithful interpretation of a remarkable book and a harrowing watch which reduced me to a tearful state from its opening moments until its abrupt conclusion. It was against this backdrop that I have revisited End of My Days. Unsurprisingly the recital’s impact has multiplied. This is essentially an album about death; it’s anything but grim yet now It somehow cuts much more deeply to the quick.

I can recall few song recital discs where the texts’ authors’ words have mattered or impacted more. Much of this is down to Ruby Hughes’ exquisite, consistently understated projection. Sounds and meanings seem heightened during this sequence of pastel-shaded paired-down accompaniments for a string quartet drawn from Rakhi Singh’s outstanding Manchester Collective. Less is indeed more in the case of Brian Elias’s heart-rending setting of John Clare’s Meet Me in the Green Glen in which Hughes’ unaccompanied voice is all; John Clare’s hazily nostalgic words gather enormous power with prior knowledge of the poet’s own lonely demise in the Northampton asylum. Perhaps anticipating the solitary fates of so many of Rachael Clarke’s patients. 

The expert curation of the programme provides space for the listener to reflect during a couple of purely instrumental items which break up the songs. Caroline Shaw’s sparkling Valencia is a delicious attempt translate into sound the simple joy of eating an orange, a worthy quest which might encourage us to savour those seemingly mundane moments we all too easily take for granted. Given the detail, colour and incident in Shaw’s five minute diversion one can reasonably assume that most of us are missing out when executing such humdrum behaviours.  It precedes a rarely heard Vaughan Williams setting of Housman’s characteristically poignant Along the Field. Singh’s raw solo violin accompaniment adds modernity to its timelessness. The weight of the piece is borne by Hughes’ boldly expressive delivery of the wonderful text. As with so much of this disc her performance projects quiet devastation.

On the face of it it’s a big stylistic jump from Vaughan Williams to John Tavener, but spiritually, sonically and semantically the three Akhtamova Songs selected here are not so alien from VW. Nor is the exotic intensity of the Orthodox tinged accompaniment a million miles from the spare simplicity of Along the Field. Tavener’s settings of three aphorisms, two of which pithily summarise their subjects’ (Dante and Boris Pasternak) sense of resignation showcase both Hughes’ facility with the Russian language and the purest legato over Tavener’s alluringly scented yet doom-laden string drones; in the final Couplet her relish in grappling with the Cyrillic velar fricatives which abound in the text is palpable. These allusive miniatures cut exponentially deep in relation to the means of their production, a point reinforced by Rakhi Singh in the booklet. 

A pair of John Dowland’s most renowned laments follow in imaginative recent arrangements for voice and quartet by the American David Bruce. The string trills mirror Hughes’ lightly applied vibrato in Go Crystal Tears – this is a searingly beautiful account of a song which rarely fails to move. Bruce’s tactful arrangement pushes the envelope to unexpected effect. His string introduction to the more extended Flow my Tears seems more conventionally ‘Tudor’ at first; this is deceptive as increasingly virtuosic decorations subsequently intervene. Hughes completely inhabits this song.  The light touch arrangement and performance once again projects an uncommon power. 

In a typically unorthodox juxtaposition, Dowland is followed by the instrumental highlight of the disc; an intriguing contemporary arrangement by the group’s second violin Donald Grant of an ancient Shetland folksong Da Day Dawn which effortlessly straddles a time gap approaching 1000 years. This central section of the disc, linking Tavener, the Tudor Court and Viking Shetland constitutes truly inspired programming; performances and sonics are of an equally high order, not least in the almost hypnotic surround production. The bent notes which feature in the Tavener songs turn up again in Hughes’ tumultuous account of Ravel’s Kaddisch, the second of his Deux mélodies hébraïques. Within the context of this very particular programme Hughes seeks to invest it with a judicious, respectful restraint which gently evaporates at the point of the concluding bars of its consoling Amen. Her way with Aramaic no less impressive than her Russian. 

The album’s title derives from Errollyn Wallen’s rapturous number End of My Days which by now is thirty years old – it seems only yesterday that her name began to feature on concert programmes. Where have those decades gone? The final number of her elegantly subversive cycle Are you worried about the rising cost of Funerals? is extraordinary – a vivacious, spiritual-touched celebration of imminent demise seasoned with hints of Scottish folk fiddle. If I was hearing this with an innocent ear I would unhesitatingly have guessed James MacMillan. I would have been delightedly mistaken. It fits beautifully here.

The juxtaposition of these death-foreshadowing songs with Debussy’s erotically charged Trois Chansons de Bilitis might appear jarring on paper but it’s the sort of connection that Hughes and the Manchester Collective revel in making. I’ve never really taken to Jake Heggie’s operas, but his quartet arrangement of the Debussy is as tasteful as it’s accomplished. If Hughes’ voice is agreeably chaste and cool in La flûte de Pan it becomes increasingly rapt and yielding in La chevelure but not excessively so and never at the expense of  Louÿs’ heady texts. The effect of the concluding Le tombeau des naïades is reinforced by Hughes’ appealing blend of clarity and delicacy. 

Perhaps Mahler’s Urlicht is the definitive death song. Its power lies in its initial gentleness which is almost overwhelming here. In this lovely arrangement for voice and quartet (aptly highlighting the russet hues at the lower end of Hughes’ range) the arc is more measured, the sound and meaning of the text somehow more telling. As the penultimate item on the disc, this outstanding account offers profound solace to all those of us who feel continually perplexed by the state of the world. Although it lacks the cosy familiarity of the Mahler, Deborah Pritchard aims for a parallel sense of hope and resolution in the concluding number. Her recent song Peace was commissioned by the Manchester Collective for its Wigmore Hall concert in July 2021 just as we began to emerge from our Covid-enforced fermata. A still bed of muted strings provides a hazy backcloth for the slow awakening of Hughes’ entrancing voice. An eerily reflective violin concludes affairs.

This is a terrific disc in every way and adds to a sequence of outstanding issues Hughes has recorded for BIS with varying accompaniments; orchestral on Clytemnestra – review – and Huw Watkins’ piano on Echo (BIS 2568 – SACD which also features songs by terrific songs by Wallen and Pritchard as well as Watkins’ own magisterial cycle which gives the album its title). It completely transcends the pandemic which spawned its design although for me it will act as an all-too-necessary reminder of that challenging period in general and of Rachael Clarke’s essential writings in particular. End of my Days is a superbly performed, arranged and recorded collection which will bring pleasure, comfort and space for contemplation to many listeners. It’s an early candidate for my disc of the year.

Richard Hanlon

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Brian Elias (b 1948)
Meet Me in the Green Glen
Caroline Shaw (b 1982) Valencia (for string quartet)
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1972-1958) Along the field 
John Tavener (1944 – 2013) from Akhtamova Songs: Dante; Boris Pasternak; Couplet
John Dowland (c 1563-1626) – Two Laments (arr. David Bruce)
Traditional (arr. Donald Grant) – Da Day Dawn, for string quartet
Maurice Ravel (1874-1937) – Kaddisch
Errolyn Wallen (b 1958) – End of My Days
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) – Three Chansons de Bilitis (arr. Jake Heggie)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) Urlicht (from Das Knaben Wunderhorn) (arr. Manchester Collective)
Deborah Pritchard (b 1977) Peace

Manchester Collective: Rakhi Singh, Donald Grant (violins), Ruth Gibson (viola), Marie Bitlloch (cello)