VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Folk Songs, Volume 4. 

Mary Bevan (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), William Vann (piano).
Albion Records ALBCD045 TT: 60:39.
UPC/EAN: 5060158190454

What great singing is all about. Like most strongly individual artistic personalities, Ralph Vaughan Williams formed his through an individual mix of other composers, including Brahms, Dvořák, Wagner, Debussy, Ravel, Elgar, and his teacher Hubert Parry. However, a desire for a "truly English" music  spurred him to look at Tudor motets and instrumental forms, hymn tunes (mainly 18th-century), and folk music. Having heard the tune "Dives and Lazarus" for the first time, he said, "here’s something which I have known all my life—only I didn’t know it!” However, by the time he (and others) noticed British folk song, it was all but dead. The singers were old or dying. A band of collectors went out to record the singers and notate the remnants of their memories, Vaughan Williams among them. Other notables included Holst, Grainger (who may have been the first to rely on cylinders and recording equipment, rather than pencil and paper), and especially Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles. Vaughan Williams arranged not only the tunes he collected, but those from others. The tunes became part of him, not just in their original form, but also in the ways they moved -- thus part of his melodic thinking. It showed up not just in his orchestral rhapsodies on folk tunes or in his "pastoral" vein, but in such gnarly modern works as his Symphony No. 4. They assume immense importance because they helped form him into the composer we know. It also helps that his arrangements are not only beautiful but often perfect settings of the tunes.

Albion, the publishing and recording arm of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society, has issued many rarities in the composer's output. I can't say that all of them would interest anybody but the composer's most rabid adherents. However, the folk-song arrangements should appeal to the most casual of VW's fans. This is the final volume of Albion's ambitious project to record all of VW's folk-song arrangements for voice and accompaniment. However even these four volumes don't exhaust the composer's settings for voice and accompaniment. Albion has also issued discs of things like the composer's Christmas folksongs. Nevertheless, Albion has done this entire set up brown, employing some of the finest musicians in Britain. This volume features Mary Bevan, Nicky Spence, Roderick Williams (my favorite baritone), and accompanist William Vann, the last the workhorse of this series. 

The quartet takes a Lieder approach to these songs, exactly right. VW usually wrote straight-ahead, strophic accompaniments but occasionally provided something more -- through-composed, setting each verse differently to match changing emotions in the text. He also came up with something in between: using two to four different accompaniment “templates” that he employed, suitable for a particular verse or a group of verses. In any case, he aims to set the tune and the text into relief, and he doesn’t forget that the means of those elements are simple and direct. Many of these songs remind you of the simpler Schubert -- eg, "Die Forelle" or "Der Lindenbaum," as opposed to "Ganymed." The singers should reflect this, and artlessness is damned difficult to put over. First, most anglophone singers aren't trained to sing in English, and for most, the primary aim of study is opera. Most opera is geared to large houses, which have no room for intimacy or subtlety. Few singers have succeeded in both Lied and opera.

Each member of the vocal trio does wonders. Mary Bevan, with a set of soprano pipes born for Mozart, has a sweet voice in this repertoire. Of the three, she most fully achieves artlessness through art. Many of her songs lend themselves to this effect, most having to do with maidens betrayed or yearning for the ghosts of dead lovers. By the way, most ghosts in folk literature aren't wispy wraiths, but cold walking corpses "in their winding-sheets." She allows the listener to discover her, rather than pushes herself to attention, and thus achieves an emotional response far greater than the means.

Nicky Spence, the tenor, seems on the verge of crossing from Lieder to opera, and great good luck to him. His is the most operatic approach to the songs, but he tamps it down a good deal. Indeed, in the lighter songs, like "The Cuckoo," you don't hear it. Nevertheless, an oily portamento -- a slide to a pitch, rather than singing it straight on -- an operatic effect supposedly conveying great emotion and often abused, crops up most frequently in his set. On the other hand, he is effective, especially in the song "The Bloody Gardener," a variant of "Lord Randall," able to bear a dramatic approach.

I just love Roderick Williams's singing. His voice is fine, although not luscious. His quality comes through in his effortlessly long, seamless line, phrasing, and sensitivity to text. He is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau without the fussiness. He is an extremely sophisticated singer who often sounds as if he "just sings." He doesn't sound as "artless" as Mary Bevan, but he gives some of the best performances on the disc. "The Turtle Dove" will break your heart. He also excels in the longer tracks -- eg, "The Bonnie Banks of Virgie-O" -- where he becomes a gripping story-teller without resorting to hokum.

William Vann belongs to the Gerald Moore class of accompanists. He catches the singers' slight hesitations and speedups gracefully and tailors his playing to both text and singer timbre. He's a pleasure to listen to all by himself.
Highly recommended.

S.G.S. (September 2022)