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I Love My Love- A Folk Song Collection
The English Singers; Glasgow Orpheus Choir/ Hugh Roberton; Fleet Street Choir/T B Lawrence; Conchita Supervia; Steuart Wilson; Frederick Ranalow; Leon Goossens, Adrian Boult, Malcolm Sargent,
English texts included ALBION RECORDS ALBCD032 [74:22]
Albion Records, the label of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, here take us back in time, to what’s been aptly described to me as a lost, much gentler era. This collection consists of recordings made between 1919 and 1947 of folk song arrangements, together with a few pieces based on folk songs. All the recordings, which have been very well transferred by Pete Reynolds, stem from 78s in two private collections. One of the collectors is Stephen Connock, Vice President of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, who is the author of the truly excellent booklet essay. The lion’s share of the recordings, however, come from the collection of David Mitchell, who was born in 1929 and who has been a record collector since at least the age of five – to prove it, there’s a picture of him at that age, holding one of his first 78s, in the booklet.
As I say, this collection of recordings takes us back in time. It also offers a strong reminder of the extent to which performance styles have changed and standards have risen over the intervening years since these particular performances were committed to disc.
This is shown vividly in the first ten tracks which are sung by The English Singers. This vocal sextet was founded in 1920 by the bass Cuthbert Kelly and the tenor Steuart Wilson. The group was founded primarily to perform English madrigals though its repertoire ranged more widely, as these recordings confirm. By the time of these sessions, in 1928, Wilson and two other founder members had left the group. VW’s arrangement of A Farmer's Son was dedicated to the Singers
It’s perhaps unfortunate that just before I settled down to review this disc I’d been reviewing a new disc of English part songs, Silence & Music by the Gabrieli Consort and Paul McCreesh. As it happens, The Turtle Dove is common to both discs and the contrast between the two performances is stark. The singing of The English Singers is pretty full-throated in style. Also, the music seems to be taken quite swiftly – although the McCreesh version is only slightly longer at 2:58. What’s missing from this 1928 performance, though, is any sense of melancholy. Unless I’m missing it, there’s little evidence of feeling for the song and what it’s about. I had a similar view of Down in yon forest. Stephen Connock rightly describes this piece as “rather mysterious”; unfortunately, the performance isn’t. Instead the rendition is fairly straightforward with little ‘give’ in it. I was glad to hear A Farmer's Son. This isn’t, perhaps, one of VW’s better-known arrangements but it’s a nice tune. It’s a pity that there’s quite a bit of surface noise on Ca' the Yowes. This is a haunting arrangement and The English Singers do it well. On the other hand, their delivery of It's of a Lawyer is too “posh” for such a jolly, robust song. These performances are of their time.
So, too, are some of the solo vocal items. Steuart Wilson sings Cecil Sharp’s arrangement of The Keys of Canterbury. Unfortunately, his way with this catchy courtship song is rather over-precise and comes across as self-conscious. On the other hand, his own arrangement of Rio Grande turns the folk song into something of an art song but that’s fine because this suits his style and I enjoyed the performance. I’m afraid I didn’t respond as warmly to Conchita Supervia in O No, John! For my taste she completely overdoes it and this item is more of a curiosity than anything else.
The Fleet Street Choir - amateur singers, I suspect - acquit themselves pretty well in I Love my Love and I liked Gustav Holst’s arrangement too. I was intrigued by the 1947 recordings of two folk songs by girls from an unspecified secondary modern school in the North Midlands. These singers were aged between 11 and 15 and they sing two unison folk songs most attractively. It’s true that the tuning occasionally falters on high-lying phrases but, frankly, who cares? What matters much more is the freshness, clarity and confidence of these young singers. I wonder how many of them continued their music-making after leaving school; many of them, I hope, for they seem to be enjoying singing on these recordings.
There are a number of non-vocal items. Leon Goossens is on fine form in Kreisler’s arrangement of the Londonderry Air. The item by Dame Ethel Smyth was completely known to me. It’s an orchestral excerpt from her 1925 opera, Entente Cordiale. The music is charming and attractive and the recording itself offers pleasing sound. Boult’s recording of Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad is most interesting, even if the piece is abridged by about two minutes. It was the first of Boult’s four recordings of the piece. More than that, it was made only seven years after the work’s 1913 premiere – at a concert attended by Boult. Was this, then, the work’s first recording? As I listened I reflected that it may well have been through this very recording that many people first heard Butterworth’s evocative little masterpiece. There’s an equal feeling of fresh discovery to the performance of Percy Grainger’s arrangement of Brigg Fair. This recording was made just over 20 years after the first performance; was it, too, a first recording? The members of the Oriana Madrigal Society do well and I liked the tenor solos by Norman Stone.
I mentioned earlier that performing standards have risen significantly since these recordings were made; and so they have. Nonetheless, we should admire the singing of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. Under their conductor, Hugh Roberton they give a marvellous account of Bantock’s Sea Sorrow. Their singing is first rate and very expressive. Moreover, the recorded sound is extremely good. It’s a pity that the identity of the contralto soloist – a choir member? – is unknown because she’s jolly good. The disc began with VW’s The Turtle Dove and the collection comes full circle with a 1945 recording of it by Roberton and the Glasgow Orpheus Choir. I grant you that the performance is slow – it lasts for more than a minute longer than the version by The English Singers – but here’s the expressiveness and feeling that, to my ears, was completely missing from the performance at the start of the disc. So, a superbly trained large choir of amateur Scottish singers trumps six professionals.
This is a fascinating collection. As I’ve indicated, some of the performance are less successful than others – at least to my twenty-first century ears. However, the performances take us back to a time when things were done differently. It’s a most interesting experience to hear these historic performances. Pete Reynolds has made a very good job of transferring them. The value of the collection is enhanced by Albion’s excellent documentation which includes full texts, all the details of the original recordings and an outstanding set of notes by Stephen Connock.
1-10 Folk song arrangements by Ralph Vaughan Williams (The Turtle Dove; Just as the Tide; Down in yon forest; An Acre of Land; A Farmer's Son; Ca' the Yowes; The Dark-Eyed Sailor; It's of a Lawyer; We've Been a While a'Wandering; Wassail Song) [21:28] rec. 1928
The English Singers (Nellie Carson; Flora Mann; Lillian Berger; Norman Notey; Norman Stone; Cuthbert Kelly)
11 The Keys of Canterbury (arr. Cecil Sharp) [2:35] rec. 1930
12 Rio Grande (arr. Steuart Wilson) [3:14] rec, 1929
13 The Crocodile (arr. Lucy Broadwood) [3:22] rec, 1929
Steuart Wilson (ten); Gerald Moore (piano)
14 Admiral Benbow (arr. Cecil Sharp) [2:02] rec. 1919
Frederick Ranalow (bar); Frederick Kiddle? (piano)
15 O No, John! (arr. Cecil Sharp) [2:26] rec. 1932
Conchita Supervia (mezzo); Ivor Newton (piano)
17 I Love my Love (arr. Gustav Holst) [4:23] rec. 1941
Fleet Street Choir/T B Lawrence
18 The Crystal Spring (arr. Cecil Sharp) [2:22] rec. 1947
19 I will give my love an apple (arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams) [1:28] rec. 1947
Girls (11-15) from secondary modern school North Midlands
20 Tuesday Morning (arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams) from the opening scene of Act I of Hugh the Drover [4:04] rec. 1924
Mary - Mary Lewis (soprano); Constable - William Anderson (baritone); John the Butcher - Frederick Collier (baritone); Ballad-Seller - Trevor Jones (tenor); British National Opera Company/Malcolm Sargent
21 Londonderry Air (arr. Fritz Kreisler) [3:36] rec. 1931
Leon Goossens (oboe) Clarence Raybould (piano)
22 Brigg Fair (arr. Percy Grainger) [2:20] rec. 1927
Norman Stone (tenor); Oriana Madrigal Society/G Kennedy Scott
23 Two Interlinked French Folk Melodies (Ethel Smyth) [4:27] rec. 1939
Light Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult
24 A Shropshire Lad (George Butterworth) [7:54] rec. 1920
British Symphony Orchestra/Adrian Boult
25 The Turtle Dove (arr. Ralph Vaughan Williams) [3:31] rec. 1945
Glasgow Orpheus Choir/Hugh Roberton