albion ralph vaughan williams serenade to music

Serenade to Music
Exploring the sixteen singers chosen for the first performance
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)

Serenade to Music (1938)
Soloists and other solo works listed below
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Sir Henry Wood
rec. 15 October, 1938 (serenade), 1926-1948 (solo items)
Texts included
Albion Records ALBCD059 [74]

The premise behind this well researched and beautifully presented collection is to offer solo performances by the original sixteen singers who participated in Vaughan Williams’ Serenade to Music alongside the original famous recording of that glorious work.  The Serenade belongs to that elite group of ‘occasional’ works, written for a very specific singular event that have entered familiar if not always standard repertoire.  The genesis of the piece is well-known; Vaughan Williams was commissioned to write a work for a concert to celebrate Sir Henry Wood’s fiftieth year as a professional conductor.  The unusual element was to produce a composition for sixteen of the most celebrated British singers of the day who had worked with Sir Henry.  Vaughan Williams wrote brief solo sections for each singer – their names are enshrined in the score – that suited their particular voice and vocal characteristics.

For this survey, Albion Records have been able to trawl the extensive private 78’s collections of the late David Mitchell as well as Stephen Connock to assemble this fascinating recital.  Furthermore, Stephen Connock has provided the excellent extensive and detailed liner notes.  The choice of the solo recordings has been dictated by discs available in those two collections.  So, as Connock points out, while they happened to have ten different performances by Walter Widdop, for Stiles-Allen there was just one.  In part this explains the range of musical styles offered, from dramatic opera aria to salon ballad.  Other elements of the presentation really help the listener appreciate and understand the context for the main work and the performers involved.  The Serenade is placed in effect last as track seventeen.  There is a track 18 ‘bonus’ featuring the bass-baritone Keith Falkner.  Falkner had been approached to be part of the first performance on October 5th 1938 but commitments in the USA at the time meant his role was taken by Robert Easton instead. 

Very intelligently, tracks 1-16 are ordered by vocal groups starting with Isobel Baillie’s famously bright and powerful soprano and ending with Norman Allin’s sepulchral bass.  As well as recording information about each selection, there is useful biographical information about the singers and a thumb-nail sketch of their voices. Full texts – as expected – are included but another nice touch is that the text for the Serenade [drawn from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice] is annotated with the names of the soloists.  This helps the listener – such as myself – who is relatively unfamiliar with these singers and their work – to cross-reference their solo songs from earlier tracks.  One last word about the presentation/production of this disc; the transcription and mastering of these old recordings – the earliest dating back to January 1926 and the most ‘recent’ November 1948 – has been superbly overseen by Peter Reynolds.  There is little or no ‘swish’, no pitch instability and from a technical perspective there is a remarkable consistency across all the tracks.  Interestingly, the Serenade is a track that in part suffers from distortion and overload more than some others – but I suspect this is present on the original discs where you have sixteen big voices plus an orchestra threatening to overwhelm the technical resources of the day.

Listening to this disc in a single sitting was a rewarding and stimulating education.  I am not overly familiar with several of these singers and I am certainly no expert in this field of historic recordings.  What did strike me quite forcefully is how musical fashions have changed.  This impacts just about every aspect of the music offered here from vocal production to musical style – instrumental and vocal, choice of repertoire and technical address.  The collection opens with Isobel Baillie singing a rather saccharine arrangement of the Bach-Gounod Ave Maria recorded in 1930.  Slightly surprisingly an uncredited solo cello –actually played very beautifully – gets the whole first verse with Baillie’s delayed entry giving it all the greater impact.  This is notable for the held and unsentimental quality of her singing – although both here and in the Serenade she deploys a tight, light vibrato which the liner says she “rarely added”.  A stylistic feature of this performance common many of the selections and singers is a use of expressive portamenti (slides) that few if any singers would dare to use today but I rather like.  Baillie’s name lives on for modern collectors if for no other reason than she was the soprano soloist on Adrian Boult’s Decca recording of Vaughan Williams’ A Sea Symphony that has remained in the catalogue for the last seventy years or so.  I am sure the names of the remaining seven female soloists will be known to collectors with greater expertise than I.  Eva Turner is familiar with a reputation as a great dramatic operatic soprano and so it proves here with a genuinely gripping performance of Vissi d’arte from Tosca conducted with flair by Sir Thomas Beecham.  Of the other two sopranos I must admit ignorance of Elsie Suddaby or Stiles-Allen.  The latter as previously mentioned as being present in the archives in just this one performance – I suspect another choice might have been made if others had been available.  Suddaby sings Arthur Somervell’s Shepherd Cradle Song which does not show that composer at his finest – a slight faux-folksong pastiche that gets a perfectly good performance although with a slightly tremulous quality to the voice.

The remaining four female soloists are all named as contraltos and there certainly is a weight and fullness to the vocal sound that few modern mezzo-sopranos aspire to and is therefore all the more fascinating to hear here in its historical context.  Astra Desmond gives us one of Marjory Kennedy-Fraser’s arrangements of Songs of the Hebrides – Mull Fisher’s Love Song.  An additional interest is the harp accompaniment played here by Maria Korchinska – Bax’s muse for his many harp-including chamber works.  The poise and precision of the singing is not in doubt although the style and arrangement now place it very much in a drawing room than any kind of accurate transcription of the original.  Margaret Balfour’s Angel’s Farewell from The Dream of Gerontius is all the more significant for the presence of the composer himself on the conducting podium.  The 1927 recording does struggle somewhat with the number of performers involved and the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra is not exactly caught in the most glowing of sound but Balfour is an impressively dignified and emotionally held singer with – as the liner says – “a true contralto” voice.  Mary Jarred is another name I was not familiar with.  She performs Parry’s England – a kind of Jerusalem 2.0 with a sincere fervour and ardent-eyed power accompanied by Hugh Allen and “massed choirs” that no performers would be comfortable to do today.  The rather diffident version on Chandos under Neeme Jarvi proves just that.

More examples of the change in vocal styles are offered by the four tenor excerpts that follow.  All four tenors – including the still famous Parry Jones and Heddle Nash – have that tight rather constricted sound that seemed to represent an ideal amongst British pre-War tenors.  No matter how intelligently sung the performances are – Heddle Nash’s Linden Lea is a model of understated word-pointing, and Frank Titterton is a suitably ardent Rodolfo in the Ah! Mimi excerpt from La Boheme – I just cannot take much pleasure in the actual sound they make.  But that is simply down to changing fashions and personal taste.  The liner mentions that Walter Widdop excelled in heldentenor repertoire, so representing him with one of Amy Woodforde-Finden’s sentimental salon ballads – A Request – probably does not show him in his finest light.  This is one of the earliest recordings too and there is a slight sense of tonal thinness that I am sure is an artefact of the original recording rather than vocal shortcomings.  Baritone Roy Henderson joined Titterton in the Puccini excerpt but leads off the final group of bass/baritones and bass singers with Butterworth’s Loveliest of Trees from his A Shropshire Lad cycle.  This famous song is very well served by Henderson and his accompanist Gerald Moore although for the modern ear Henderson’s rolled “r’s” and received pronunciation are distinctly period features.  Heddle Nash returns to sing alongside Robert Easton in an English language excerpt from Gounod’s Faust.  Easton had a famously wide range but he also sings with a faster vibrato than most modern basses would utilise but that proves rather effective in this excerpt where Beecham again provides empathetic accompaniment.  Harold Williams’ Prologue from Pagliacci is rather hampered by some pretty ropey orchestral playing from the British National Opera Company’s Orchestra under Eugene Goossens.  In the liner Connock speaks highly of Williams’ vocal and musical skills.  To the modern ear this is certainly refined and adept singing but especially in the English version given here lacking the Italianate passion and sheer attack that modern ears expect.  The last of the sixteen is Norman Allin’s dignified rendering of Vaughan Williams’ Silent Noon from The House of Life cycle.  Not often heard in the transposition for bass voice this is an example of where period style and song are ideally matched.  This is another recording made in 1926 so some allowance for the technical limitations must be made but the fidelity of Allin’s voice is remarkable for its age.  Keith Falkner, again accompanied by Gerald Moore, offers another of Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad songs as the ‘bonus’ track – the famous ghostly dialogue of Is My Team Ploughing.  As with several of the performances here, Falkner does not over emote.  The differentiation between ‘ghost’ and living ‘lad’ is clear but unfussy with Falkner’s voice coming across and firmly focussed and well-projected.

The main event of the Serenade to Music is very familiar as is this Columbia recording made at the Abbey Road Studios in the presence of the composer on October 15th 1938.  This disc contains a newly remastered version.  I know this recording from the collection released on Dutton’s “Wood Conducts Vaughan Williams” disc.  The sound is a fraction warmer on the Albion release but there is an occasional ‘swishing’ not as present on the Dutton transfer.  I assume different sets of 78’s were used but ultimately the importance of this as an historical performing document far outweighs passing concerns of the actual recording.  In fact, the Columbia engineers did a pretty remarkable job producing a recording that so successfully balances the sixteen voices as solo and collective entities alongside the substantial orchestral contribution.  Quite how that was mixed down live to a single mono track I do not know.  Wood’s interpretation has the authority of primacy and hearing it immediately after the solo selections I was interested to pick out the likes of Turner, Baillie and Nash within the collective group more easily than before.

This will always be something of a specialist/niche release but it is one that has been done with great skill and care and no little passion.  The booklet cover (and the CD in part too) is a photograph taken of conductor, composer and singers at the 1938 recording.  It has the look of a colourised picture – which to my eye always has a hint of the mortician about them.  I would have preferred the original black and white but that is a tiny inconsequential detail.  Another fine Albion release to be cherished.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: John France (February 2024) ~ Jonathan Woolf (March 2024)

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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