Vaughan Williams and Friends [Warlock’s The Curlew]

Vaughan Williams
Four Hymns
Merciless Beauty
Ten Blake Songs
Six Studies in English Folksong
The Curlew

Mark Padmore (tenor)

Ileana Ruhemann (flute), Nicholas Daniel (oboe & cor anglais), Simon Rowland-Jones (viola), Doric Quartet [Alex Redington & Jonathan Stone (violins), Simon Tandree (viola) & John Myerscough (cello)] & Julius Drake (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 6 January, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Julius DrakeRalph Vaughan Williams’s songs are a significant though (a couple of evergreens apart) relatively neglected part of his output – such that the present series, devised by Julius Drake, has been a most welcome feature of the events commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death last year.

The first two song-cycles are natural complements to the larger-scale orchestral and choral works from their respective periods. Thus “Four Hymns” (1914), whose rhetorically inclined vocal writing and often elaborately contrapuntal exchanges between viola and piano find a direct corollary in the first two symphonies and the Tallis Fantasia; while the Chaucer settings of “Merciless Beauty” (1921) pursue a more inward, even rarefied manner much more in keeping with A Pastoral Symphony (Symphony No.3) as well as “Sancta civitas”.

Mark PadmoreMark Padmore undoubtedly had the (appreciably different) measure of both works – handling the effusive intensity of the former cycle with assurance (as did Drake and Simon Rowland-Jones the intertwining lines for piano and viola) and adopting a restrained yet never detached manner for the latter, whose string trio component was luminously rendered by three members of the Doric Quartet.

Neither work, though, evinces the greatness of “Ten Blake Settings” (1957) which are Vaughan Williams’s final contribution to the genre. Astonishingly, these songs originally had something of a didactic function – written as the musical component of a documentary film about the poet, artist and philosopher. Not that they lose out when heard in a recital context: indeed, the combination of voice and oboe has a plangent expressiveness and innate truthfulness that illuminates these poems from Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and of Experience” as have few, if any, settings before or since. Padmore brought the right degree of artless simplicity to the cycle, not least those three songs where the tenor is unaccompanied, while Nicholas Daniel distilled a purity and telling understatement to the oboe-writing that made this seem quite the most natural combination of voice and instrument.

Opening the second half with Drake, Daniel demonstrated his equal facility with the cor anglais in the affecting Six Studies in English Folksong (1926); miniatures more usually heard on clarinet or viola, but which here took on a certain rusticity of manner which was as appealing as it was appropriate.

Sound preparation, too, for Daniel in his contribution to the final work on the programme. Less a song-cycle than a scena, “The Curlew” (1924) is the largest-scale work which Peter Warlock (born Philip Heseltine) – brought to fruition in his regrettably brief career. In a performance as finely attuned to its unique vision as this one, it is possible to feel that he had expressed the essence of himself therein. Moreover, a work which went through almost a decade of revision before the four settings of W. B. Yeats were decided on is nothing if not inevitable in both its poetic and musical follow-through: the bleak eloquence evident in the instrumental prelude being variously diversified or intensified but never sacrificed as the sequence wends its fateful course. Here, unmistakably, is that inner isolation that the composer often alluded to and which finally proved intolerable to him.

A work, too, which in our time has become synonymous with the artistry of Ian Partridge took on an appreciably different though no less sustained impact in Padmore’s interpretation – its charged intensity palpably underpinned by evocative contributions from Nicholas Daniel and Ileana Ruhemann; with that the Doric Quartet amply suggested, in the music’s harmonic and textural inventiveness, that Warlock did both himself and posterity a disservice by not attempting an autonomous string quartet. “The Curlew” brought the recital to its close in a sombre yet cathartic manner – after which nothing more needed to be said.

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