I’m actually the third Musicweb International reviewer to come to this disc, and all three of us (see John Quinn and Jonathan Woolf’s reviews) have admired it enormously.
The last time I had come across this team was their Britten recital, which I had found a decidedly mixed success. For a number of reasons, this disc is much better, most importantly because Padmore embodies both the letter and the spirit of this music. He personifies the two personae of Is my team ploughing? very convincingly, and paints a beautiful picture of wistfulness in Bredon Hill. Even more winning, however, is the contribution of the Britten ensemble, which is really superb throughout. They provide an electric shimmer at the start of On Wenlock Edge, and they paint both the melancholy colours of Is my team ploughing? and the sparkiness of Oh, when I was in love with you with equal skill. The halo of string sound in Bredon Hill is magical, as is the varied evocation of the bell effects, and I loved the way the dissonances become ever more pronounced as the song continues.
The Ten Blake Songs were a revelation to me, with their unusual setting for tenor and oboe. Sometimes the pairing works to create something whimsical and lyrical, as in The Piper or The Lamb. Sometimes, however, as in A Poison Tree or Cruelty has a human heart, the combination is dark, chromatic and sinister. It's astonishing how much variety of mood Vaughan Williams can conjure from the pairing, but it's remarkably admirable. Nicholas Daniel's oboe becomes a character in its own right, and Padmore sings with extra warmth, seeming to enjoy the pairing with such a companion. He is even more compelling, however, in London and The Divine Image, where he sings unaccompanied.
Dove's The End sets a poem by Mark Strand where he compares the experience of dying to a voyage on a ship. It's an evocative, moving setting, opening with an undulating string figure that parallels the ebb and flow of the waves, and the tenor hovers over it, eking out a mysterious but powerful melody. Padmore finds a more pinched, less fulsome quality to his voice, which is entirely appropriate for the setting and, taken as a whole, the song packs quite a punch. That persistent string line gives it something of the colour of a film soundtrack, and the evocative sound of the flute and cor anglais above the string quartet is a very effective way of evoking the keening of sea-birds overhead.
The players all but steal the show in The Curlew too, painting a wonderfully wistful picture in the introduction, to which Padmore's vocal line seems to act as a mere add-on. The balance is redressed somewhat in Padmore's beautiful performance of I cried when the moon, but it remains the instrumentalists who are the stars in this enigmatic, compact, mysterious, but very compelling song-cycle. It marks a very successful end to a very successful disc, showcasing some very fine English song-cycles in first rate performances.
John Quinn and Jonathan Woolf
Vaughan Williams review index: Vocal works