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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
The Song of Love
The House of Life (1903-1904) [24:47]
Three Old German Songs (1902) [6:40]
To Daffodils (Gunby Hall setting, c. 1903) [3:39]
French songs (1903-1904) [11:47]
Buonaparty (1908) [1:39]
The Willow Song (1897) [4:12]
Three Songs from Shakespeare (1925) [3:35]
The Spanish Ladies (1912) [2:40]
The Turtle Dove (1919-1934) [2:59]
Two Poems by Seumas O'Sullivan (1925) [3:23]
Duets (1903)
Think of Me [1:51]
Adieu [1:40]
Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano)
Roderick Williams (baritone);
William Vann (piano)
rec. 2018, Potton Hall, UK
Tests and Translations included
ALBION RECORDS ALBCD037 [68:52]

You can always rely on Albion Records to come up with ‘firsts’ in their discs of lesser-known Vaughan Williams. So it is here, with sixteen of the twenty-five tracks being premiere recordings. However, the chief interest, I fancy, lies in a work which, despite the fact that it has been recorded quite a number of times before, here also achieves a ‘first’.

The House of Life is a collection of six settings of sonnets by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). I imagine that most collectors, like me, will associate it with male singers; among the versions in my own collection are top class recordings by Roderick Williams (review) and Anthony Rolfe Johnson (review). Here, however, Albion give us the first-ever recording of the complete set by a female singer. Now, you may object that at least two of the poems – the third and fourth – clearly express the thoughts of a man. There is a significant precedent, however. We learn from the excellent and thoroughly researched notes by John Francis that in December 1904 VW arranged a concert of his own works in what is now the Wigmore Hall in London. The programme included the first performance of The House of Life and the singer was a contralto, Edith Clegg, with Hamilton Harty, no less, at the piano. Countless female singers will have essayed the most famous song in the set, ‘Silent Noon’ but I wonder how many have sung the full set. When you hear these radiant performances by Kitty Whately you may be as astonished as I was that this is the first female recording of the six songs.

I’ve come to admire Miss Whately greatly; I’ve heard her several times live and on disc and have never been disappointed. Her debut disc of English song was a fine achievement (review) as was a subsequent programme of songs by Jonathan Dove (review). To the best of my knowledge this is her first assignment for Albion. The first song, ‘Love-Sight’ fills you with confidence for what is to come. Firstly, William Vann lays out the piano introduction most atmospherically. Then we hear Kitty Whately’s voice and the impact is immediate. She sings with firm, focussed and appealing tone. She spins a wonderful vocal line and her diction is clear as a bell. The expression that she brings to the music is the icing on the cake. Singer and pianist achieve a super climax on the last line of the poem after which Vann’s delivery of the piano postlude is satisfyingly refined. We’re off to a great start. Miss Whately brings refined intensity to ‘Silent Noon’. In ‘Love's Minstrels’ William Vann sets the scene beautifully and then Kitty Whately’s delivery of the song is urgent and rapturous, partnered by piano playing that is consistently superb. This is one of the poems that is clearly voicing the thoughts of a man but I don’t think that matters a bit, especially in the face of so committed a performance. That’s true also of ‘Heart's Haven’, which receives an impassioned reading. In truth, the whole set is outstandingly performed. Those used to hearing these songs sung by a tenor or baritone will find that Kitty Whately uses different keys but the choice of keys means that the music fits her voice like a glove. I enjoyed this performance from start to finish and I hope that other female singers will now be encouraged to follow the trail blazed by Kitty Whately. The celebrated recordings of this work by male singers are by no means displaced but hearing them sung – and sung so well – by a female singer was a revelatory experience.

Who knew that Vaughan Williams composed songs in German? I freely admit that I didn’t. I learned from the notes that the three songs here sung by Roderick Williams were commissioned by Walter Ford (1861-1938), who was Professor of Singing at the Royal College of Music from 1895 and an enthusiast for folk music. Apparently, he commissioned these songs and at least some of the French songs heard later in the programme for his own use at lecture recitals. Two of the three songs, ‘Entlaubet ist der Walde’ and ‘Wanderlied’ were published in 1937 but it seems that VW effectively gave up on the third song, ‘Der Morgenstern’ because Ford only supplied him with the first stanza. Albion Records have painstakingly researched the textural background to add two more verses. The songs use traditional melodies and the accompaniment is uncomplicated. They are attractive – and, needless to say, expertly performed here – but I can’t regard them as more than chippings from the woodcutter’s bench.

The French songs are a rather different matter, though. These also are entrusted to Roderick Williams. For ‘Quant li Louseignolz’ (Quand le Rossignol), VW went as far back as a French song written at some time between 1190 and 1202. The source of ‘L'Amour de Moy’ is a chanson that probably dates from the fifteenth century. In both these songs we find melodic material that is not as obviously ‘folk-like’ as in the German songs and the piano writing is much more elaborate. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say these two arrangements could be taken for mélodies. Both are very attractive and are very convincingly done here. ‘Jean Renaud’ is a traditional ballade and ‘Le Psaume des batailles’ (Que Dieu Se Montre Seulement) is a Huguenot version of Psalm 68 which is set to a tune that bears quite a kindship to the hymn tune ‘All Creatures of our God and King’ with a running piano accompaniment.

Roderick Williams also offers us Buonaparty, a vigorous song to words by Thomas Hardy. Apparently, VW had it in mind to incorporate this into Hugh the Drover but chose not to do so. Williams sings it with great character, as he does the robust The Spanish Ladies. The more lyrical side of Roderick Williams’ work is wonderfully displayed in The Turtle Dove. This exquisite traditional song is sung with the gentle melancholy and seamless line that it needs if it’s to make the maximum impact. I’ve known and loved The Turtle Dove for years but by contrast, the Two Poems by Seumas O'Sullivan were completely new to me. O'Sullivan was the pen name used by the Irish poet James Sullivan Starkey (1879-1958). I’m sure John Francis is right to point out in his notes that these two songs were published in 1925, the year in which VW began work on Riders to the Sea. ‘Twilight People’ is a strange song. VW sanctioned unaccompanied performance of both songs and ‘Twilight People’ has been recorded in that way before but never with its piano accompaniment. To describe the piano part as sparse would be to risk overstatement. The vocal line is haunting and mysterious. ‘A Piper’ is over in a flash – the present performance lasts for 44 seconds! It’s livelier than its companion and is more obviously appealing. Roderick Williams’ other solo offering is To Daffodils. This Herrick setting is not the same one that Williams sang on an earlier Albion album, Kissing her Hair (review). That setting was made in 1895 but the one here recorded was made in about 1903. It’s referred to as the Gunby Hall setting because the song came to light at a Lincolnshire country house of that name. This was owned by friends of the composer and he was a frequent visitor. This 1903 version of To Daffodils is an absolute charmer and its appeal is greatly enhanced by the sensitive performance of Roderick Williams and William Vann.

1925, the year that saw publication of the O’Sullivan settings, was also the year of the Three Songs from Shakespeare. These are not to be confused with the magnificent and masterly Three Shakespeare Songs for chorus, which date from 1951. These earlier settings for solo voice set completely different texts. In these three short songs VW adopts a more concise style than we experience in, say, The House of Life. Indeed, I agree fully with the comment in the notes that there is “not an ounce of surplus fat” on this music – though the settings aren’t as spare as ‘Twilight People’. To me they seem to be direct and effective settings and Kitty Whately does them very well, just as she does the much earlier Shakespeare setting, The Willow Song (1897).

To close the programme all three artists come together to perform a pair of duets, ‘Think of Me’ and ‘Adieu’. These are German folk songs set in English translations. Frankly, they’re pretty slight compositions but they’re worth hearing for two reasons. The first is that the three musicians lavish as much care and attention on them as on anything else in the programme. But the second reason is even more important, I think. In the booklet we’re reminded that some of the pieces here recorded – and the duets would surely come into this category – were written at a time when VW “was perhaps more inclined to accept work as a jobbing composer – whether to broaden his knowledge, for friendship, or just for money.” Though a few of the pieces on this programme are fairly slight, without exception they are the work of a fine musical craftsman and it’s good that we can hear this side of the composer, as well as his acknowledged masterpieces, to fill out our knowledge of this remarkable composer.

Throughout the programme the singing and pianism are of the highest quality. The recorded sound is very good with the singers expertly balanced against the piano. The only very slight criticism I’d venture is that Miss Whately is recorded rather closely and often her intakes of breath are audible. I noticed that particularly in The House of Life but it didn’t impede in the slightest my enjoyment of her splendid singing. The documentation is up to this label’s usual excellent standards.

All lovers of the music of Vaughan Williams should seek out this fine disc, not least to hear the revelatory performance of The House of Life.
 
John Quinn



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