vaughan williams birthday garland somm

Vaughan Williams – A Birthday Garland
Roderick Williams (baritone)
Susie Allan (piano)
rec. 2023, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke d’Abernon, UK
Texts included
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD0683 [76]

Roderick Williams has followed the precedent of Gerald Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, dedicated to Vaughan Williams on his 70th birthday, in compiling this disc intended for VW’s 150th anniversary in 2022. It’s what he terms ‘a fantasy birthday party’ and includes as guests VW’s teachers, associates, friends and students. Also included is Sarah Cattley’s cycle, which contrasts and reflects on VW’s Songs of Travel and Roderick Williams’ own The Shepherd, these last pieces acting as a ‘living composers’ pendant to the programme.

There are nine VW songs, well selected to show differing stages of his musical development and affinities with favoured poets such as Tennyson and Whitman – the last-named almost an obsession for British composers of the time. The Splendour Falls represents pre-Ravel VW whilst at the other end of things Menelaus, a setting of an Ursula Vaughan Williams poem, comes from his latter years, though I have to say I don’t find it especially distinctive. It’s valuable to have the Twilight People, one of the Seumas O’Sullivan settings, as it’s early VW and offers the singer very light piano accompaniment. Roderick Williams also sings Linden Lea in a ‘Dorset’ accent familiar from a previous recording of his on Albion ALBCD002. He sang it perfectly straight in his VW Songs disc with Iain Burnside on Naxos twenty years ago and I have to be honest, I find the ‘accent’ risible. This applies equally to Butterworth’s Roving in the Dew where the performance, when contrasted with his Butterworth Songs on Naxos, again with Burnside, now sounds coarsely characterised and exaggerated. It might raise a smile in concert but on disc I wish he’d stop mucking about like this.      

The VW settings are interspersed throughout the programme, reflecting on and contextualising – to some extent – those of his friends and students. The deft Ravel song is based on Ye banks and braes and his other teacher, Max Bruch, is represented by one of his Scottish Folk Songs, O Saw Ye My Father? though it was composed decades before VW studied with him. Those who know this cycle of songs or things like the Swedish Dances will anticipate Bruch’s straightforwardness of approach. Williams sings Rebecca Clarke’s Down by the Salley Gardens in a light Irish accent though here the results are less torrid than in Linden Lea and the Butterworth. In any case Clarke is a perceptive song-setter and her accompaniment reflects the mood of the song, now light, now richly resonant. Grace Williams is another of VW’s students and her Jim Cro (or Crow) is a pleasing Welsh song.  

Holst’s habitual coolness rather deserts him in Darest Thou Now O Soul, with its passionate declamation of Whitman’s lines. It inaugurates a sequence of Whitman settings from a variety of composers. Ina Boyle is thoughtful and robust, Ivor Gurney from the asylum years shows flashes of charm but not much of a tune, and Stanford is in avuncular and eager mood in one of his Songs of Faith, Joy, Shipmate, Joy! – as, indeed, is Roderick Williams.

Ruth Gipps, increasingly recognised these days, is represented by The Pulley which has something of a parlando quality about it. Howells’s The Sorrow of Love is an early work of his, written when he was about 20, and has never been recorded before, it would seem. It sits firmly in the School of VW. One of the best settings here, eclipsing many a more famous name, is that of Elizabeth Maconchy whose descriptive subtlety and sheer sonic vibrancy can be admired in her 1965 song, The Wind and the Rain. Still, there’s always Parry’s robust Edwardiana to please, if that happens to float your boat, and Madeleine Dring offers more up-to-date melancholy.

The new song cycle by Sarah Cattley takes a set of five poems by Frances Cornford, A Square and Candle-lighted Boat. It was written for the Music at Paxton and Thaxted Festivals, performed by Williams and Susie Allan. Cornford was a cousin of Vaughan Williams and Cattley’s setting is an astute piece of work, drawing sufficient attention in her piano writing to the ‘far off gulls’ and the ‘clock ticking’ without too undue an emphasis. In the poem that lends its title to the cycle, Cattley is attentive to dappled allusions and colouristic treble lines and indeed to the hooting owl. These domestic poems offer charm and limpidity. If the intention was to present what she calls a ‘creative antithesis’ to VW’s Songs of Travel, I think she’s succeeded. Roderick Williams was still at school when he composed the calm, calming The Shepherd, to words by Blake.

Almost everything has been recorded before, other than the song by Howells, and the appendix settings by Cattley and Williams himself. The recording has been finely judged and there’s a good balance between singer and the piano. There’s a very good booklet written by Simon Heffer in which you’ll also find full texts.

This is a fine representative recital, my grumpy feelings about ‘accents’ put to one side. Williams and Allan make for a secure, sensitive pairing.

Jonathan Woolf 

Previous review: John Quinn (March 2024)

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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*