Is it perhaps the sheer variety of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ text settings that makes him less performed as a composer of English song? He’s certainly less uniform in style and intent than, say, Finzi, or Warlock, or in some ways even Britten. From the late Victorian hale-and-heartiness of Songs of Travel to the esoteric utterances of Along the Field or the Ten Blake Songs, the gamut he runs is exceptionally wide with instrumental accompaniments often stretching above and beyond the humble piano.
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. The Scottish tenor has explored heavier roles of late—a notably lyrical but full-hefted Siegmund at English National Opera, for example—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.
The House of Life requires a special skill to pull it off, especially to bring the other five settings up to the level of the cycle’s best-known song Silent Noon. Spence arrests from the outset through his passionate, almost breathless engagement with the lyric of the opening Love-sight. The long line is spun most elegantly, rising from a rich, baritonal bottom to a smoothly connected upper register and with beautifully floated top notes. Drake’s thoughtful, measured piano lines make a heart-stopping meditation out of Love’s minstrels, while Spence, for his part, spins the lyric with a folk singer’s sense of freedom and an intense identification with Rossetti’s text. Heart’s haven is beautifully sentimental—in the best sense—and there’s some superb storytelling in the Schumann-esque pageantry of Death in Love. The cycle concludes with a deeply felt account of Love’s last gift that exudes honesty and throbs with emotion.
The three jaunty folksongs make a perfect palette cleanser with Spence as nuanced narrator in The saucy bold robber and Harry the tailor. He’s peerless too in the increasingly elaborate similes of The brewer, capped by some perfectly judged vocal joshing about ‘a pianist without any keys’ and ‘a tenor without any beer’.
That brings him at last to On Wenlock Edge, by far the most recorded of Vaughan Williams’ song cycles. Again, the attention to text is remarkable, even in a field that boasts such fine singing actors as Philip Langridge and James Gilchrist. In the title song, Spence veers from anguish to defiance, his freshness of delivery captures the direct manner of Housman’s troubled ‘English yeoman’. His instinct for inward engagement makes a moving thing out of From far, from eve and morning, spine-tinglingly contrasted with the ghostly goings on of Is my team ploughing? The ringing top notes that adorn the final phrase ‘I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart’ are matched by an equally thrilling set at the climax of Bredon Hill and its desperate cry of ‘Oh, noisy bells, be dumb.’ The latter song is taken daringly slowly, the Piatti Quartet creating a haunting, hazy landscape through which to catch Drake’s variously pealing chimes. Rounding off the cycle with a concentrated account of Clun and its mystic prognostications links back perfectly to the metaphysical Lord! Come away! that opened this most revelatory of albums.
Beautifully and most naturally recorded, rarely does a song recital contain so many insights. This is desert island stuff.