VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: On Wenlock Edge; 10 Blake Songs; JONATHAN DOVE: The End; WARLOCK: The Curlew – Mark Padmore, tenor/ Nicholas Daniel, oboe/ Huw Watkins, piano/ Britten Sinfonia/ Jacqueline Shave – Harmonia mundi multichannel SACD HMU 807566, 72:35 *****:
Padmore here delves into native territory that one would think is second nature to him—and with good reason. For he digs into these English standards with a verve and joy that convinces one he has been singing them since earliest childhood, which might not be far from the truth. Vaughan Williams stands out here of course, his A.E. Housman lyrics from A Shropshire Lad composed at the age of 35 being one of the pieces that catapulted him into the limelight. Though known primarily as a symphonist these days—and maybe even a great one—Vaughan Williams dedicated his entire aesthetic to the idea of English music finding its fulfillment and perhaps even future in the folk songs of the British Isles. On Wenlock Edge manipulates Housman’s texts with delicate and ravishing effect, perhaps too much if we are to believe the poet, who was not that enamored of VW’s settings, and subsequent critics were liable to complain that Housman’s poetry was far more bleak and desperate than VW’s music suggested. Nevertheless, a public on the brink of the Great War resonated with the music, and the rest is history. The scoring is delicately written across piano and string quartet, and is a marvel unto itself. Padmore’s own inner disposition is tailor-made for this music, and he projects with amiable and affecting sensitivity.
The Ten Blake Songs are years later (1957) when the composer was more daring in his originality and more accomplished in his ability to fill harmonies with a modicum of means. This piece, for tenor and oboe alone, concentrates on the essence of melody, the oboe providing apt commentary and sometimes even confrontation in these William Blake lyrics, though all is well in the end. Three times during the cycle the oboe is absent altogether. Nicholas Daniel is a perfect partner in this direct and very gentle piece.
Jonathan Dove’s The End is the newest piece here (2012), and his minimalist expansions for string quartet, flute, and English horn are a pithy and pathetic reflection on the title, referring in no unsubtle terms to the end of life, and the unknown that faces each of us. The poem is rather metaphysical in manner though hardly despairing, with a touch of the bittersweet, and makes a nice complement to the other works on the disc.
Philip Hazeltine, aka Peter Warlock, was another of those song aficionados whose Yeats-based cycle The Curlew is one of the classics of the modern age. Warlock was not invested in English folk song; he went his own way, and absorbed elements from composers as disparate as Bartok, Schoenberg, and Purcell, though the basic tone is something still—at this point in time—harmonically pleasing and accessible. But the emotive tone of the piece is anything but comfortable. Warlock uses the texts in a manner almost symphonic—at least that’s how he thought of it—and even rejected two of the original songs and added one during the 1922 revision, making for a four-songed piece with an interlude (string quartet, English horn, and flute) before the last song. The mood is bleak, and the subject in and out of love and loss, and the result is one of the most moving works of art of the last century. Padmore senses this with the heightened perception of a man born blind, and sings with radiant beauty.
The SACD sound here is wide and deep, gorgeous in its pillow-like warmth and separation of the instruments. This is a terrific disc, perfect for a melancholy late-fall early winter afternoon.