A richly rewarding celebration of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 150th birthday in Gloucester

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Birthday Celebration for Ralph: Roderick Williams (baritone), Susie Allan (piano). Ivor Gurney Hall, The King’s School, Gloucester 13.11.2022. (JQ)

Roderick Williams and Susie Allan recently at Wigmore Hall

‘Birthday Celebration for Ralph’: songs by Vaughan Williams, Charles Wood, Ravel, Bruch, Rebecca Clarke, Grace Williams, George Butterworth, Holst, Ina Boyle, Gurney, Stanford, Ruth Gipps, Howells, Elizbeth Maconchy, Parry, Madeleine Dring, Finzi

Vaughan Williams – Songs of Travel; Meneleaus

Roderick Williams and Susie Allan came to give this keenly anticipated recital for Gloucester Music Society in honour of Vaughan Williams’ 150th anniversary. The venue was the Ivor Gurney Hall, a Victorian building used for many years as a schoolroom and latterly as a small gymnasium by The King’s School. It lies right in the shadow of Gloucester Cathedral and just a few years ago, it was converted into a small auditorium, ideal for chamber music, and was named after one of the King’s School’s most celebrated alumni. As Roderick Williams commented when he introduced the recital, it was quite something to be able to perform music by both Gurney and his friend and contemporary, Herbert Howells in the very room in which they had likely been taught.

Williams explained that the programme had been designed as a ‘virtual birthday party’ for Vaughan Williams. To this party had been invited a number of guests – teachers, friends and pupils of VW – all of whom were represented by a single song in the first half with a number of VW’s own songs scattered among them. This first half, which occupied nearly an hour, consisted of twenty-two songs by seventeen composers, which were performed as an unbroken sequence. In the second half we heard VW’s cycle, Songs of Travel to which was appended a single song, Meneleaus. Fittingly, this final item was a setting of a poem by Ursula Vaughan Williams which Roderick Williams, the party’s genial host, wittily suggested was akin to Ursula tapping her husband on the shoulder as the function drew to a close and whispering that it was time to call a cab to take them home. Before discussing the music and performances, I think it is appropriate to say that the construction of the first half was discerning and showed Roderick Williams’ deep and perceptive knowledge of the English song repertoire. He had divided the songs into a number of small sub-groups, including in his selection several items that may have been unfamiliar to us in the audience; each one justified its inclusion on merit.

Two Tennyson settings, one by VW and one by Charles Wood, one of his teachers, opened the proceedings. The Splendour Falls was an impassioned song, which singer and pianist delivered with great élan. Wood’s Fortune and her wheel didn’t make such a strong impression on me as a piece but it was still worth hearing.

VWs lifelong enthusiasm for folksongs informed the next group. His celebrated Linden Lea led things off. Williams sang this in a Dorset accent, a feat which not every singer could have pulled off. I am bound to say I wasn’t entirely sure I liked this approach but it was refreshing. Ravel’s Chanson Écossaise turned out to be a setting of Burns’ ‘Ye banks and braes’. For me, the chief interest here lay in the piano part, impeccably and poetically played by Susie Allan. It was fascinating to hear in the introduction the familiar tune arrayed in Ravelian textures and harmonies, and the piano part was a delight throughout the setting. I am not sure I have previously heard Rebecca Clarke’s Down by the Salley Gardens; it is delightful and Williams sang it with great expression. George Butterworth’s ‘Roving in the dew’ is one of his Folk Songs from Sussex. It is a dialogue song, the protagonists being a posh gentleman and a feisty milkmaid. Williams portrayed these two very different characters with well-judged broad humour.

Next, we heard a group of five Walt Whitman settings. Holst’s Darest thou now, O Soul sets the same words that VW used in his choral/orchestral work Toward the unknown region. Holst’s response to the text is much more succinct than his friend’s – I wonder if they compared notes about their respective settings during one of their ‘field days’ – but it loses nothing from being much shorter. It is a big, imposing song and the piano part, superbly encompassed by Allan, is almost orchestral in dimension. Williams’ singing was commanding. It was only last year that I first became acquainted with the songs of the Irish composer, Ina Boyle thanks to an excellent CD of her songs (review). Boyle became a pupil of VW in 1923 and travelled from Ireland monthly for a lesson until the outbreak of World War II put a stop to that. Her songs are well worth discovery and I was thrilled to find that The Last Invocation was included today. This predates her studies with VW – she won a prize with it as a festival in Sligo in 1913. It made a strong impression on me when I heard the CD and it was just as impressive when heard live. The music is intense and poetic, as was the performance by Williams and Allan. It is a very fine song. So too is VW’s A clear midnight. Here, the piano part is akin to a slow processional while the vocal line has genuine nobility. Preceding that song was a Whitman setting by Ivor Gurney which has a VW link. In Reconciliation Gurney chose a poem by the American poet which VW would later set as part of his great cantata Dona nobis pacem. Gurney’s response to the poem is rapturous at first, later becoming much more inward. Williams was daringly expressive in his delivery, especially towards the end. The Whitman group ended with Stanford’s Joy, Shipmate, Joy in which both performers brought out thrillingly the ardent eagerness of both words and music.

A couple of settings of George Herbert followed, one extremely familiar, one much less so. VW’s ‘The Call’ is one of his glorious Five Mystical Songs; it was great to hear it on this occasion. The Pulley by Ruth Gipps, a VW pupil, is a song which I heard for the first time only a matter of weeks ago. It appears on a very fine new CD of English orchestral songs, all of which appear in orchestrations by Williams; on the disc in question, he is the soloist, partnered by the Hallé and Sir Mark Elder. When I reviewed the disc I commented that I hadn’t yet found this particular song appealing. This live performance helped greatly in that respect. It made a big difference to see Williams communicating the song. Also – and I mean no disrespect to Williams’ excellent arrangement for string orchestra – I found that the piano accompaniment, immaculately played by Allan, made it easier for me to grasp the song.

It was intriguing to hear two settings of poetry by Seamus O’Sullivan side by side. VW’s The Twilight People received a memorably atmospheric performance. Howells’ The Sorrows of Love is a song that isn’t easy to grasp but Williams and Allan really brought it to life.

Finally, a selection of Shakespeare settings. I wasn’t greatly taken with Elizabeth Maconchy’s The wind and the rain. It is a fast and furious setting which requires – and here received – pin-point articulation from the performers. If the song itself didn’t do a great deal for me that didn’t mean I couldn’t admire the deft and witty performance. Madeleine Dring’s Take, o take those lips away is a lovely song – and much easier to appreciate. Williams sang it most expressively. Incidentally, that’s another song which he has very successfully orchestrated and which is included on the aforementioned CD with the Hallé. This section of the programme came to an end with Finzi’s peerless setting of ‘Who is Sylvia’, part of the collection Let us garlands bring. The performance was a delight

After the interval VW’s virtual birthday party resumed. Having greeted all his fellow guests and exchanged peasantries (and songs) with them, the guest of honour now took centre stage.

Songs of Travel (1904) is, arguably, VW’s finest achievement in the field of art song and so it was a highly appropriate choice for this programme. The performance began auspiciously: ‘The Vagabond’ had a confident, purposeful tread, yet though both Williams and Allan were suitably robust, in no way did they neglect the poetry in the song. Susie Allan made the piano ripple like a harp in ‘Let beauty awake’. The rapture in the music was readily apparent in this performance with Williams’ enviably seamless legato a decided asset. ‘Youth and love’ is a marvellous song and it was raptly performed. Yet again, I admired Allan’s playing; she weighted the piano part, with its recurring two-followed-by-three rhythm, in an ideal fashion, allowing Williams’ voice to take wing. The climax had all the urgency you could wish to hear. This was an outstanding reading of the song. In ‘The Infinite Shining Heaven’ I loved the way both artists made VW’s harmonic shifts so telling, yet in a subtle way. I have never understood why VW kept the final song locked away in a drawer; it was only found and performed after his death. His withholding of the song is most strange because ‘I have trod the upward and the downward slope’ draws everything together so perfectly. Not only do Stevenson’s lines bring the cycle to a highly satisfying conclusion but also VW, with his allusions to earlier themes, wraps everything up in an ideal way. Today’s performance combined nobility and feeling; once the singing had finished Allan’s exquisite piano postlude provided the ideal conclusion – except that it wasn’t the conclusion. Williams and Allan moved seamlessly into Meneleaus.

This is one of the collection entitled Four Last Songs. The songs, all of which set poems by Ursula Vaughan Williams, were composed between 1954 and 1958 and were gathered together into a set by Ursula, and performed, after her husband’s death. Whereas Songs of Travel has the confidence and eagerness of (relative) youth, Meneleaus which comes from the composer’s last years, is much more reflective in nature. It seems to me to be a particular example of VW looking back; in the piano part I hear several brief echoes of the later symphonies, for example. It is a very fine, autumnal song which Williams and Allan performed with great understanding and empathy.

This was an outstanding recital. Roderick Williams was on top form. The expressive range in his singing and the way in which he communicates with his audience, naturally and without exaggeration, enables him to bring anything he performs vividly to life. That was very much in evidence today. He is renowned for his sensitivity to the words he is singing, which he obviously studies just as closely as the music. All the texts of the songs were printed in the programme but I can honestly say that not once did I feel the need to look at the words, so clear was his diction. ‘Bright is the ring of words / When the right man rings them’ are the opening lines of the penultimate number in Songs of Travel. Today, throughout the recital, we certainly had the right man ringing the words.

Williams and Allan have been recital partners for more than twenty years now, and it shows. There is a palpable artistic rapport between them, and though a great deal of hard work is done in the rehearsal room, I am sure, they seem to have an intuitive understanding. Allan’s playing today was a delight from start to finish, full of perception and musicality. Together, she and Williams make a formidable musical partnership.

This was a richly rewarding and very enjoyable celebration of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 150th birthday. I didn’t have a sore head afterwards; this is one musical party that I won’t forget in a hurry.

John Quinn              

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