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Track(s) taken from CKD296

On Wenlock Edge

author of text

James Gilchrist (tenor), Fitzwilliam String Quartet, Anna Tilbrook (piano)
Studio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available
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Recording details: November 2006
Christ's Hospital School, Horsham, United Kingdom
Produced by Philip Hobbs
Engineered by Philip Hobbs
Release date: June 2007
Total duration: 21 minutes 4 seconds

Other recordings available for download

Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Dante Quartet, Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
Adrian Thompson (tenor), Delmé Quartet, Iain Burnside (piano)
John Mark Ainsley (tenor), The Nash Ensemble, Leo Phillips (violin), Elizabeth Wexler (violin), Roger Chase (viola), Paul Watkins (cello), Ian Brown (piano)


'James Gilchrist has perhaps a lightish tenor voice for the V.W. Housman cycle but he brings such dramatic power and insight to it and such lyricism to its gentler songs that it matters little. His interpretations of 'Is my team ploughing?' and 'Bredon Hill' are as good as any on disc. The pianist Anna Tilbrook and the Fitzwilliam Quartet are equally superb in evoking the composer's atmospheric instrumental writing. Ivor Gurney's seven wonderful Housman settings, Ludlow and Teme, are also beautifully performed and Gilchrist penetrates to the melancholy of Peter Warlock's The Curlew. Exceptionally fine recording quality' (The Sunday Telegraph)

'And lovely sound is at the core of this recording. Gilchrist sings with a gossamer tone that floats effortlessly through these settings of six A E Housman poems from A Shropshire Lad … he gives 'Is my team ploughing?' that strange question-and-answer-poem, a real narrative drive, and his 'Bredon Hill'—the core of the cycle—is glorious. On Wenlock Edge inspired others to set Housman to music, among them Ivor Gurney, who produced Ludlow and Teme in 1919 using the same piano quintet accompaniment as Vaughan Williams, his teacher at the time. Gilchrist brings the same plangent tone to these songs, and also revels in Peter Warlock's The Curlew and Arthur Bliss's Elegiac Sonnet. This is an excellent collection for lovers of English song' (The Observer)» More

'[Gilchrist's] is a lighter-sounding voice than some of his contemporaries, but it gives him the colouring to negotiate the often folk-like melodic naivety of passages in this music while losing nothing in textual awareness. He has certainly got the expressive range to bring out the anger in Vaughan Williams's vivid setting of 'Is my team ploughing?' at the same time as the growing doom of 'Bredon Hill'. In this latter song, the playing of Anna Tilbrook and the Fitzwilliam Quartet is at its most finely featured, with hazy strings and the ever-more ominous tolling of the bells, and there is equal character in the Bliss sonnet. Gareth Hulse's cor anglais playing is aptly subtle in Warlock's portrayal of Yeats's curlew, and he is matched by the artistry of flautist Michael Cox. In all, an atmospherically recorded and consummately performed disc' (The Daily Telegraph)» More

'Hearing On Wenlock Edge and Ludlow and Teme together, it's the echoes in the Vaughan Williams of Ravel (with whom he'd just finished his studies) that set it apart from Gurney's much less knowing approach, which is arguably closer to the sensibility of Housman's poems. The tenor, James Gilchrist, catches those different emphases superbly. He is equally vivid in evoking Peter Warlock's The Curlew, whose four settings of W B Yeats, with its accompaniment of flute, cor anglais and quartet, are woven into a miniature symphonic poem and inhabit a very different and rather un-English world' (The Guardian)

Though rightly regarded as one of the twentieth century’s great symphonists, Ralph Vaughan Williams responded to the setting of words throughout his long life. Songs were therefore as significant among his earliest efforts as they were in his final creative period. On Wenlock Edge was composed in 1909 and first performed by Gervase Elwes (tenor) and the Schwiller Quartet, with Frederick Kiddle (piano), in the Aeolian Hall in London’s Bond Street, on 19 November. It signalled what the ‘Sea Symphony’ and the ‘Tallis Fantasia’ would confirm in the following year, that a major composer had arrived on the British musical scene.

It had been an arduous journey, however. Vaughan Williams was nearly forty and had served a long apprenticeship: two years at the Royal College of Music studying composition with Parry, three years for a Bachelor of Music degree at Cambridge University, two more years at the Royal College (this time under Stanford), a few months in Germany under the guidance of Max Bruch, and finally, in 1908, three months in Paris to acquire ‘a little French polish’ from Ravel. To which one might add the self-education that came about through his investigations into English folksong (he collected his first example on 4 December 1904) and the years of intensive research that went into preparing the great English Hymnal for publication in 1906. Such were the labours that transformed him from a composer in the German mould into a voice that could only be English. Something of this process can be felt in On Wenlock Edge. In it, the discipline of German symphonic thought is tempered by the subtlety of French impressionism and invigorated by the melodic directness of English folksong. The result is the unique language of Vaughan Williams and a turning point in the history of British music.

A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad poems were published in March 1896. Though not the first composer to recognise their suitability for music (that distinction belongs to Sir Arthur Somervell), Vaughan Williams’s cycle was the first fully integrated interpretation to appear (George Butterworth’s cycles belong to 1911 and 1912). In all essentials, Vaughan Williams’s conception is symphonic—though more a matter of emotional sweep than thematic development. Where appropriate, he treats the song as drama. Thus the conversation between the living and the dead in ‘Is my team ploughing?’ becomes a miniature opera, while the bell-like accompaniment of ‘Bredon Hill’ provides a background symphony of great dramatic intensity. Similarly, the flaring strings that accompany ‘On Wenlock Edge’ depict not only the storms that trouble the woods, but also the emotional gales that move the protagonist. And who but Vaughan Williams could have conjured up the mood of spiritual resignation and fulfilment that brings the cycle to its noble end? By any standards, On Wenlock Edge is a remarkable achievement.

from notes by Michael Hurd © 2000

Other albums featuring this work

Gurney: Ludlow and Teme & The Western Playland; Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge
Vaughan Williams, Venables & Gurney: On Wenlock Edge & other songs
SIGCD112Download only
Vaughan Williams: Songs
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