Vaughan Williams Birthday Garland Somm CD0683

Vaughan Williams: A Birthday Garland
Roderick Williams (baritone); Susie Allan (piano)
rec. 2023, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK
Texts included
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0683 [76]

In 2022, the musical world celebrated the 150th anniversary of the birth of Ralph Vaughan Williams. A gratifying number of recordings of his music appeared – though perhaps not such a bounty as some of us would have wished – and his music was widely performed in concerts and recitals. Among the recital celebrations, baritone Roderick Williams devised what he calls “a fantasy birthday party”. Williams drew up the guest list, which included many composers and poets who had crossed VW’s path in one way or another during his long lifetime. I won’t even being to ape the way in which Williams describes either his guest list or the party in a witty note in the booklet: I’m sure that readers of this review will easily make the various connections as they read through the track list. Suffice to say that the importance of VW as a teacher is recognised by the inclusion of songs by six of his pupils (by my count). Several distinguished fellow-composers, some of them early teachers of VW, others of them his friends and contemporaries, came along to the party to pay their respects and join in the fun. And, of course, the guest of honour has plenty to contribute to the proceedings – and why not? – through eight of his own songs. Towards the end of the programme, two composers from our own time make an appearance; I’ll say more when I consider their musical birthday presents for Uncle Ralph.

Roderick Williams also included poets among the invitees. I don’t know if the songs are presented on this CD in exactly the order in which they were performed in recital. However, I suspect that various groupings of songs according to the poets set have been preserved. So, let’s acknowledge the literary guests as we consider the songs.

First to take a bow is Tennyson, who supplied the texts for the first two songs. The Splendour Falls is an early VW song. To be honest, it’s not the equal of many of his subsequent songs, but this subtly shaded performance by Roderick Williams and Susie Allan allows it to punch above its weight. I admired the characteristic care that Williams takes over the text as he sings the song with great expression. Charles Woods’ Fortune and her Wheel was composed, Simon Heffer tells us in his booklet essay, during his student days at the Royal College of Music. The song was new to me and it’s well worth hearing.

Then we hear what is probably VW’s best-known song. Linden Lea. Williams sings this in a rustic Dorset accent. I’ve heard him do this before and I’m still not 100% convinced, though it does enliven a song which is as familiar as it is fine. Perhaps this song is the start of a small group of “accent” songs. Ravel’s Chanson écossaise is, in fact, a setting of Burns’ well-known ‘Ye banks and braes’. The song is surely an outlier among Ravel’s songs; I’m not aware that he wrote anything else in a British language (I hesitate to follow Simon Heffer’s example and term the song’s language ‘English’). I greatly admired Susie Allan’s delectable playing during this item. Bruch’s ‘O Saw Ye My Father?’ is less of an outlier in his output because it’s one of a set of twelve Scottish Folksongs, which he composed before 1864. In both of these items Williams adopts a gentle Scots accent.

There’s another “accent” song coming up shortly, but first we hear Rebecca Clarke’s Down by the Salley Gardens. Clarke was a Stanford pupil, but she also came within VW’s orbit at the RCM. This setting of Yeats’ well-known lines is most attractive and here it’s sung and played most expressively. The Welsh composer, Grace Williams was one of VW’s students. Roderick Williams has selected Jim Cro, a traditional nursery tune and he sings it in Welsh. As Simon Heffer observes, Grace Williams’ setting “[demands] a vigour Vaughan Williams felt was lacking in settings of folk songs by the previous generation, such as Cecil Sharp”. In this performance, Roderick Williams fairly rattles through the text, which is no mean feat for someone who, I assume, is not a Welsh speaker. I mentioned another “accent” song. I was referring to George Butterworth’s ‘Roving in the Dew’. This is one of a set of Eleven Folk Songs from Sussex. This particular song is a dialogue between a squire and a knowing milk maid. Williams has recorded it before (review). He adopts a two-voice approach: posh tones for the squire’s lines and a rustic, higher pitched voice for the milk maid. It’s very entertaining.

Neither Gustav Holst nor Walt Whitman could possibly be left off the list of invitees to a VW party, Holst’s Darest Thou Now O Soul ushers in a group of five Whitman settings. In this song, Holst set the same text that VW would shortly select for his choral work Toward the Unknown Region. I’m always struck by how much more succinct Holst was in his treatment of these lines; here, the song plays for 4:02 whereas VW’s choral piece is three times that length. Holst’s setting is, I think, a keen response to Whitman’s words (not that VW’s isn’t); every stanza is treated differently. Roderick Williams shows great imagination in the way he delivers this song. I first encountered the music of Ina Boyle through an excellent disc of her songs issued in 2021 (review). The Last Invocation was on that programme too. I admired it then and this performance maintains that admiration. Boyle became a pupil of VW, travelling from Ireland to London regularly for lessons over several years between 1923 and the outbreak of World War II. This song was composed as early as 1913. I wonder if she showed it to VW when she asked to become his pupil. If she did, I’m not surprised he took her on because it’s a fine piece. Here, The Last Invocation receives sensitive advocacy from Willams and Allan. Just as VW set the same Whitman text as Holst, so too did Ivor Gurney set words by the American poet, which VW later used in one of his choral works. Reconciliation (‘Word over all, beautiful as the sky’) is best known for VW’s moving treatment of the words in his cantata Dona Nobis Pacem (1936). Gurney’s song is earlier; it’s an intense response to the text which Williams sings movingly, A setting of Whitman by VW himself follows. The music for A Clear Midnight is characterised by dignified melancholy. This Whitman group ends with a setting by Stanford, VW’s teacher at the RCM. ‘Joy, Shipmate, Joy!’ comes from his Songs of Faith. There’s an eagerness in the music which is splendidly communicated in this performance.

In the booklet, Roderick Williams mentions that he has previously recorded quite a number of the songs that feature in this present programme. So he has, though I don’t think that matters; it’s good to hear the songs in question in the context of this programme and, in any case, no two performances are the same. Actually, in the case of a couple of these songs, he’s gone a bit further than recording them before: he has recorded them in his own orchestrations. One of these is The Pulley by Ruth Gipps – the other is the Madeleine Dring song (review). I didn’t know The Pulley until I heard Williams’ recording. It’s an unusual song which doesn’t give up its secrets immediately. The words are by George Herbert and, as Simon Heffer points out, the meter of the poem is somewhat unusual; I don’t think it easily lends itself to a musical setting, though Gipps surmounts that challenge. It’s a most interesting and accomplished composition. Intelligently, another Herbert setting follows and this time we’re on much more familiar territory. ‘The Call’ is one of VW’s marvellous Five Mystical Songs. Here, the poetry most definitely lends itself to music

Two songs follow which set words by the Irish poet and near-contemporary of VW, Seumas O’Sullivan (1879-1958). VW’s The Twilight People is quite an early composition (1905). The music is very pensive and creates a strong atmosphere. The piano writing is very spare in nature – Susie Allan places everything perfectly – and the main focus is on the vocal line which is almost like a recitativo. Williams articulates the words and music in an ideal fashion; indeed, his way with the song is almost akin to a poetry reading. I was mildly surprised to see that ‘The Sorrow of Love’, another O’Sullivan setting, this time by Herbert Howells is here receiving its first recording. I learned from Simon Heffer’s essay that this is one of Howells’ Cycle of Five Songs for Low Voice, which dates from around 1912. These songs weren’t included in the two-disc set of Howells’ songs issued in 1994 (CHAN 9185/6), though that set, whilst comprehensive, made no claim to be a complete survey. Heffer comments that when Howells wrote this song, he was “heavily under Vaughan Williams’ influence”; he’s right. At this stage, Howells had yet to find his own distinctive voice; nonetheless, this very reflective song is well worth hearing. Indeed, I’d like to hear the rest of the set.

One of the principal poet guests is, of course, Shakespeare. You might say that he is a late arrival at this fantasy party, but a group of five settings of his verses now follows. The most intriguing setting – for me – is Elizabeth Maconchy’s The Wind and the Rain. She was a VW pupil; her setting is the most modernist music we’ve so far heard, but I’m certain her old teacher would have approved strongly of her determination to express her individuality. The music calls for very nimble articulation by both singer and pianist – they deliver, of course. The performance is witty; the music may be modern (by comparison with the previous pieces) but it’s entertaining. Parry’s ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ is from one of his sets of English Lyrics. It’s a bluff, late nineteenth-century setting which could only be by an English composer of that era. Madeleine Dring was a pupil of both VW and Howells, As I’ve mentioned, Roderick Williams has already made a recording of his very effective orchestration of her setting of Take, O Take Those Lips Away. It’s an elegant song which is here sung with great understanding. In When Icicles Hang by the Wall, VW sets Shakespeare’s words in a clever way such that the musical rhythms perfectly match the natural rhythms of the words. The performance is nicely characterised. Fittingly, the last word in this Shakespeare group is given to that great connoisseur of English literature and friend of VW, Gerald Finzi. ‘Who is Silvia?’ is from his wonderful cycle Let Us Garlands Bring. Williams and Allen point the music perfectly.

It’s now time for the Guest of Honour to say a few words towards the end of the party. Roderick Williams has made a most perceptive choice of what I might term valedictory songs from each end of VW’s career. ‘I Have Trod the Upward and Downward Slope’ is the conclusion to the Songs of Travel; or, rather, it is nowadays. Inexplicably, VW withheld the song and it only came to light after his death. Now, of course, it’s impossible to imagine a performance of the cycle without it since it wraps everything up so satisfactorily. How moving it is, in the context of this VW celebration, to hear Williams finish a wonderful performance with his exquisite delivery of the last line (‘And I have lived and loved and closed the door’). After that, Susie Allan’s marvellous weighting of the soft piano postlude is as fine as I can recall hearing. Then, it’s touching to segue into ‘Menelaus’, one of the composer’s Four Last Songs, composed between 1954 and 1958. The words are by Ursula, and Simon Heffer splendidly sums up the poem as being “about the powerful bond of love that sustains a marriage faced with seemingly unsurmountable odds”. Ursula’s words are movingly personal and eloquent. VW’s music contains echoes of his past music, especially in the piano part; listening, we can hear the wisdom and emotions of old age. This marvellous song receives a performance from Roderick Williams and Susie Allan which is wholly worthy of it.

As I implied earlier when discussing the Maconchy song, VW was always encouraging of composers younger than himself, notwithstanding that they might speak a rather different musical language than his. Fittingly, therefore, before, in Roderick William’s felicitous phrase, Ursula saw to it that her husband “take his leave of the young, gather him into a cab and take him home” we hear from two composers of today.

Sarah Cattley was commissioned, with support from the RVW Trust, to write a set of songs specifically for performance by Roderick Williams and Susie Allan. The result is a set of five songs entitled A Square and Candle-lighted Boat. Appropriately, the texts are poems by Frances Cornford (1886-1960), a contemporary and cousin of VW. Simon Heffer tells us that Cattley has said that she views the songs as a “creative antithesis” to Songs of Travel, in the sense that the chosen poems express the notion of staying at home rather than travelling. But she also views her composition as a “companion piece” to VW’s cycle. I like these songs very much. In all five settings, Cattley displays a fine feeling for the words and her songs are very atmospheric. The only criticism – a very mild one – that I would venture is that all of them are in a slow tempo; something a little quicker in pace would have provided useful contrast. That said, there’s plenty of contrast within the songs as they stand. The first one, ‘The Bedroom Dawn’ is magically still, especially during the first stanza. The second, ‘The Coast – Norfolk’, seems to me to present the calm of old age and solitude. The third song, ‘Bickers Cottage’ starts off portraying a cosy domestic scene but then is quite eerie at the end as the arrival of a ghost disturbs things. A line from the fourth poem, ‘The Country Bedroom’ supplies Cattley with the title for the collection. The poet imagines a bedroom as a boat at sea; at one point the singer has to imitate the call of an owl – Williams does so most realistically. Finally, there’s tranquillity in ‘Waking in the Attic Bedroom’. These are very good, well-imagined songs. I’m sure Sarah Cattley feels very fortunate that her songs were premiered and now are recorded for the first time by such perceptive and skilled interpreters as Williams and Allan.

To close, Roderick Williams sings one of his own songs. The Shepherd is one of two songs which he composed as a schoolboy; both are settings of words by William Blake. They lay unperformed until 2011, but I’m really glad that The Shepherd has now been recorded. Simon Heffer relates that a critic has suggested that the song owes “an unconscious debt” to VW. You can hear that as early as the piano introduction. The song is a lovely and, dare I say, precocious response to Blake’s words. And, of course, it’s fitting that Blake, another influence on VW, should attend the party. I enjoyed this song very much and would like to hear its companion, The Angel.

This is a wonderful recital. The programme has been constructed with imagination and perception. The performances are outstanding; the disc offers yet another demonstration of Roderick Williams’ excellence as a singer, while Susie Allan’s playing is a consistent delight.

Paul Arden-Taylor has recorded the artists clearly and sympathetically. Simon Heffer’s booklet essay demonstrates his great knowledge of and sympathy for English music.

Lovers of English song should not hesitate: acquire this disc and gatecrash Uncle Ralph’s musical party.

John Quinn

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Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Splendour Falls (1903)
Charles Wood: Fortune and her Wheel
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Linden Lea
Maurice Ravel: Chanson écossaise (1909)
Max Bruch: O Saw Ye My Father?
Rebecca Clarke: Down by the Salley Gardens (1919)
Grace Williams: Jim Cro
George Butterworth: Roving in the Dew
Gustav Holst: Darest Thou Now O Soul (c1905)
Ina Boyle: The Last Invocation (1913)
Ivor Gurney: Reconciliation (c1925)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: A Clear Midnight (1925)
Sir Charles Villiers Stanford: Joy, Shipmate, Joy! (1906)
Ruth Gipps: The Pulley (1939)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Call (1910)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Twilight People (1905)
Herbert Howells: The Sorrow of Love* (1912)
Elizabeth Maconchy: The Wind and the Rain (1965)
Sir Hubert Parry: Under the Greenwood Tree (publ. 1902)
Madeleine Dring: Take, O Take Those Lips Away (c 1950)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: When Icicles Hang by the Wall (1925)
Gerald Finzi: Who is Silvia? (1942)
Ralph Vaughan Williams: I Have Trod the Upward and Downward Slope
Ralph Vaughan Williams: Menelaus
Sarah Cattley: A Square and Candle-lighted Boat*
No 1, The Bedroom Dawn
No 2, The Coast – Norfolk
No 3, Bickers Cottage
No 4, The Country Bedroom
No 5, Waking in the Attic Bedroom
Roderick Williams: The Shepherd*