Housman's lyrics, deceptively simple in style yet emotionally charged, have always attracted composers—ironically so, because having his verses set enraged the poet. These three cycles represent the intriguingly different responses—the Vaughan Williams the most profound and dramatic; the Gurney musically more straightforward, though shot with terrible unease. The Venables, premiered by Kennedy in 2004, follows the others rather well, its idiom (deliberately, perhaps) quite similar; its emotional tone, more aware of Housman's homosexual subtexts, brings out his brittle acidity, and the protesting irony of 'Oh who is that young sinner'.
The three make an interesting programme, and with so many excellent versions of On Wenlock Edge, that's an important element of choice. Among tenors I'd favour Ian Partridge (on EMI, though alas currently deleted), James Gilchrist (available on Linn, also offering the Gurney), and, with orchestra, Robert Tear and Ian Bostridge (both on EMI); but Kennedy is by no means out of the running. He proves himself a rising star with performances keenly sung if occasionally, rather mannered supported by Simon Crawford-Philips and the Dante players. He could have used more variety of expression—more of Bostridge's angst in the title song, and Tear's brash bounce in 'Oh when I was in love with you', for example—but he captures the eerie pathos of 'Is my team ploughing?' and 'Bredon' very finely. If anything he's more eloquent in the Gurney, notably the bitter ironies of 'Ludlow Fair'; and Venables' mordant 'Easter Hymn' and forlorn 'Because I liked you better' are distinctly telling. If the Venables appeals, these are striking performances.