Cinq mélodies populaires grecques
Four poems by Fredegond Shove – III: The New Ghost
Ronsard à son âme
The Sky above the Roof
String Quartet in F
Four Last Songs – Procris and Menelaus
Three Poems by Walt Whitman [Nocturne; A clear midnight; Joy, shipmate, joy]
On Wenlock Edge
Mark Padmore (tenor) with Navarra String Quartet [Magnus Johnston & Marije Ploemacher (violins), Simone van der Giessen (viola) & Nathaniel Boyd (cello)] and Roger Vignoles (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 27 April, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall
Ralph Vaughan Williams and Maurice Ravel may seem the most unlikely bedfellows – the tweedy English gentleman-visionary and the fastidious, dapper Frenchman – but the three months Vaughan Williams spent in Paris in 1908 studying with Ravel had as significant an influence on the English composer as Berg might have had on Britten, had the latter gone to study with him.
Like Debussy, the young Vaughan Williams saw the necessity of cutting loose from the all-pervasive German influence, and Mark Padmore’s programme of this pretty rarified repertoire succinctly elucidated the benefits of Gallic practices in terms of attitudes to harmony, colour, less-is-more restraint and a less-rigorous formalism, which had a marked effect on the next generation of British composers, particularly Britten and Lennox Berkeley. But probably the biggest attraction for Northern artists was to be part of the perceived impulsive and sophisticated sense of reconciliation to the world as it is, and which flows through French music, rather than the striving towards the world as it could be – in Vaughan Williams’s case with his far gaze fixed on humanist transcendence. But it was Vaughan Williams himself who said that “the heavy, contrapuntal Teutonic manner was not necessary” – and his assimilation of aspects of French modernism was certainly made clear by this recital.
Presumably deliberately, we were not given song texts to squint at and fiddle with in the half-lit hall; musical impression was the point, a nudge towards grasping what Ravel made possible in Vaughan Williams, via musical preferences such as folk-music common to them both – if nothing else, the music drunk deep from antique modal and pentatonic scales. Mark Padmore jumped in at the deep end with a thrillingly troubadour-like performance of Ravel’s ”Cinq mélodies populaires grecques”, full of mood and colour, and with a piano part packed with suggestion that Vaughan Williams clearly took to heart in the ravishing stillness of “The Sky above the Roof” (1908 to a poem by Verlaine) and which had been fully assimilated into his style by the time of his “Four Last Songs” (to texts by wife Ursula) from the end of his long life. Indeed, many of the piano accompaniments must have looked on the page as though there was hardly anything there, as the pairing of Vaughan Williams’s ‘The New Ghost’ and Ravel’s Ronsard song pointed out with severe economy, and you could have been forgiven for thinking that ‘Nocturne’ from “Three Poems by Walt Whitman” could have been written by Britten.
Both halves of the recital were anchored by two big works. Ravel’s sole String Quartet received a remarkably focused performance from the young Navarra players, the sort of playing that really drew you into the music, with wonderfully open, guitar-like pizzicatos in the scherzo and all the elusive transparency of French light and shade you could ask for in the slow movement. It’s odd to think that a work as quintessentially English as “On Wenlock Edge” (to A. E. Housman’s “A Shropshire Lad”), for tenor, string quartet and piano, should have been ‘enabled’ by Ravel, but here it was in a glorious, big performance, with Mark Padmore vivid and excoriating in ‘Is my team still ploughing?’, heartbreaking in ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’. The liquid centre of his voice is one of the wonders of the tenor world, and the top of his range has a fantastic poise and control. Just as remarkable was Roger Vignoles’s contribution, more direction by stealth than accompaniment, responding to every nuance and hint of colour with an incredible sense of what makes this music live.