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Track(s) taken from CDA68378

The house of Life

1903/4; A cycle of six sonnets

Nicky Spence (tenor), Julius Drake (piano)
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Recording details: November 2020
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Simon Kiln
Engineered by Ben Connellan
Release date: April 2022
Total duration: 25 minutes 40 seconds

Cover artwork: Untitled (study of trees) by Sir George Clausen (1852-1944)
Dundee Art Galleries and Museums / Bridgeman Images


‘Nicky Spence and colleagues serve up a nourishing feast of Vaughan Williams’s vocal music, culminating in a performance of On Wenlock Edge which, in its thrilling assurance, strength of imagination and rapt instinct, inclines me to rank it alongside the very finest I know … Spence and Drake do [The house of Life] absolutely proud, and likewise locate an abundance of wistful tenderness and fragrant beauty in those two sensitive settings that top and tail the cycle … marvellous, too, to have such a superbly ardent, insightful account of the glorious Four Hymns for tenor, piano and viola … in sum, a hugely enjoyable offering for the RVW sesquicentennial’ (Gramophone)

‘In the 1914 cycle of Four Hymns, it is ‘Come Love’ that shows [Spence's] technical accomplishments best as he expressively utilises the full range of dynamics and seamlessly melds with the sonorities of the duetting viola, beautifully played by Timothy Ridout … On Wenlock Edge (1909) has often been recorded, but this is a fine rendering with ‘Bredon Hill’ providing some particularly sublime moments. As always Julius Drake’s accompanying is evocative and nuanced, and in ‘Is my team ploughing?’ the Piatti Quartet swathe the song in a delicate veil of tensile sound’ (BBC Music Magazine)» More

‘Now here’s a contribution to the Vaughan Williams anniversary that I think might be on a few ‘best of the year’ lists in December. I hope so … tenor Nicky Spence is in wonderful voice here: not too much reserve; loads of passion; well-balanced responses from the Piatti Quartet and pianist Julius Drake. It’s one of those performances whose vivid exploration of the emotional landscapes evokes Ravel in places, with whom Vaughan Williams was taking lessons and who thought highly of this cycle [On Wenlock Edge], apparently. Viola player Timothy Ridout adds real richness to the sound of the Four Hymns, and the early cycle The house of Life—Vaughan Williams’s settings of Rossetti—is beautiful, touching. The whole recital is mesmerizing, I think’ (BBC Record Review)

‘The Scottish tenor’s gift for combining pure tone with direct, daring expression makes this a covetable disc (even with so many available versions out there, including John Mark Ainsley’s, also on Hyperion). In Is My Team Ploughing?, hushed strings pulsating, Spence handles the leaps from pianissimo to full voice with absolute control. Bredon Hill conjures the hot stillness of a summer’s day, piano tolling and pealing as 'distant bells', the high strings suddenly transforming all to icy winter and sorrow: magically done by all, as is the whole disc’ (The Guardian)

‘One of the immediate strengths of Nicky Spence’s new album for Hyperion is how cohesive a feel he brings to a program that ranges through the mystic passions of the Four Hymns (with obligato viola and piano), the rose-scented minstrelsies of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The House of Life, and a trio of rumbustious folksongs thrown in for good measure, culminating in On Wenlock Edge, Vaughan Williams’ masterly Ravel-inspired settings for tenor, piano and string quartet from Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad. Not only does Spence really feel this music, I don’t think I’ve ever heard them sung with such heroic fervour … and these songs pulse with life when subject to such ardent advocacy. Timothy Ridout’s biting viola and Julius Drake’s urgent piano accompaniment complement the sense of religious zeal while simultaneously relating this free-flowing music to the earthier sound world of British folksong … beautifully and most naturally recorded, rarely does a song recital contain so many insights. This is desert island stuff’ (Limelight, Australia)» More

‘Tenor Nicky Spence copes well with all the works presented here … [his] sensitivity to the words is first-rate … the other performers are uniformly excellent and are well-served by Hyperion’s recording’ (MusicWeb International)

‘This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the birth of the composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, the father of British music into the 20th century, and there could be no better way to mark that event than by this important release on the Hyperion label. It features the outstanding Scottish tenor, Nicky Spence, whose singing throughout has such fine poise and, when required, a full-bodied quality, perfectly supported by the pianist, Julius Drake. Then, with the imaginative colours created by the highly acclaimed young Piatti Quartet, Spence captures the emotive words of the popular song cycle, On Wenlock Edge’ (Yorkshire Post)

In 1903 RVW wrote to the critic Edwin Evans, who was preparing an article about him. The letter listed principal works to date, including a Symphonic Rhapsody ‘after a poem by Christina Rossetti’ and also a slightly earlier setting, for soprano, chorus and orchestra, of Swinburne’s The Garden of Proserpine. The Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic hovers over these poetic choices, and it is unsurprising that in the year following the Evans letter RVW composed a cycle setting poems by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, brother of Christina and, in addition to his poetic activity, a leading light of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood as a painter. The cycle was The house of Life and it incorporated ‘Silent noon’, a single song composed the previous year. Here we encounter some of the legacy of RVW’s study with Max Bruch in Berlin during 1897-98, and also of his earlier apprenticeship under Charles Villiers Stanford—who in RVW’s words had found him ‘too Teuton already’ and whose advice to go to Italy had been rejected. Both Stanford and Bruch deplored RVW’s harmonic predilection for flattened sevenths (something that would come fully into its own when he began collecting and arranging English folk songs). ‘Love-sight’, the song which opens The house of Life, betrays a degree of uncertain tension between instinct and schooling; likewise a tendency towards uniformity in the matching of bar length to the actual rate of harmonic change. Vocal lines are often doubled a little needlessly by the piano, denying the kind of textural transparency encouraged later by Ravel’s far-reaching guidance on orchestration. The way in which the more agitated central stages of the song (‘O love—my love! if I no more should see / Thyself …’) describe first a downward and then an upward chromatic sequence feels a shade obvious in its contrivance, and one senses a little of what was soon to lead the composer to Ravel’s door. In particular, one may be aware of the self-sufficiency of the piano-writing, from which the vocal line threatens to arise as a by-product rather as than the true compositional focus. Yet, there are tantalizing glimpses of things yet to come, still a few years off.

‘Silent noon’ offers relatively little contrast with the opening song except in tonality, but deploys a greater independence and melodic authenticity of vocal line. ‘Love’s minstrels’ alternates yet more of the textures from the previous two songs with free recitative-like passages, its piano-writing strongly suggesting a draft sketch for an orchestral arrangement. It hints immediately at the dense chordal opening texture of the Five Mystical Songs of 1911, but also at the ‘false-relation’ technique (juxtaposing ordinary triad chords such that one, two or three notes within them fruitfully ‘disagree’ with the content of the chord following) which was to emerge more fully in the string masterpiece Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis (1910, revised in 1913 and 1919). The sense of an orchestra waiting in the wings recurs in the chordal formations of the remaining numbers: notably the fanfare figures of ‘Death in Love’ and the more serene harmonic agglomerations of ‘Love’s last gift’, whose opening fleetingly prefigures the composer’s oft-heard short motet O taste and see (1952, sung at RVW’s funeral in 1958) or his Sine nomine tune for the hymn ‘For all the saints’.

RVW was by no means alone in turning to France for inspiration and enlightenment. The early music of Frank Bridge reveals an indebtedness to the craft, manner and harmonic flexibility of Fauré’s early chamber works, while E J Moeran’s first orchestral rhapsody contains a central allegro powerfully influenced by Ravel; similarly, salient moments of John Ireland’s cello sonata proclaim Debussy, and the current revival of interest in York Bowen has revealed his keen contemporaneous awareness of Debussy’s keyboard-writing. Although this indicates how the supposed cul de sac of nineteenth-century Germanic academicism is only a part of the story of British music in the early years of the century following, it does also highlight the danger of merely exchanging one form of import for another. Meanwhile, in a world destined to change utterly in the face of the First World War, folk-song collectors such as Cecil Sharp were rescuing an indigenous British heritage at risk of vanishing for ever. In his essay ‘The evolution of the folk-song’, RVW later wrote that:

The folk-song is I believe not dead, but the art of the folk-singer is. We cannot, and would not if we could, sing folk-songs in the same way and in the same circumstances in which they used to be sung. If the revival of folk-song meant merely an attempt to galvanize into life a dead past, there would be little to be said for it. The folk-song has now taken its place side by side with the classical songs of Schubert … Is not folk-song the bond of union where all our musical tastes can meet? … And where can we look for a surer proof that our art is living than in that music which has for generations voiced the spiritual longings of our race?

Herein lay the seeds of what blanket terminology has dubbed ‘The English Renaissance’: the birth of a nationalist vein of composition in which the modal harmony implicit in the contours of English folk song mapped naturally onto what was similarly implied by ancient plainchant, the origin of medieval choral polyphony. The confluence of these elements is central to the development of RVW’s language beyond The house of Life, and also to what we might call the spiritual dimension of his subsequent output as a whole. It meant that the living pulse of an indigenous recent and distant past beat just as strongly in works which by their nature might seem to borrow genuine folk melody but which were actually free extensions that simply ‘spoke its language’. RVW’s folk-song arrangements were therefore no mere appendix to his ‘real’ output, but intrinsic components of it.

from notes by Francis Pott © 2022

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