Most Grand to Die
Success as Hans Sachs at Bayreuth has probably won James Rutherford a higher profile on the other side of the Channel than at home. Maybe this disc of songs by Butterworth, Gurney and Vaughan Williams will start to change that. Occupying similar ground to Simon Keenlyside’s Gramophone Award-winning ‘Songs of War’ (Sony, 2/12), Rutherford brings his Wagnerian bass-baritone to bear on the song repertoire with uncommon skill and sensitivity. Try the opening of Butterworth’s ‘On the idle hill of summer’ to appreciate his care over line and the unforced clarity of the words. The only serious drawback comes at the top of the voice, where Wagnerian bluster and a slow vibrato sometimes detract from the beauty of his singing – though not, happily, at the ringing climax of Gurney’s ‘By a Bierside’, which gives the disc its title.
Compared to Keenlyside, Rutherford is less extrovert and sounds the more natural song recitalist. There is a giant, though, lurking in the background: Bryn Terfel’s 1995 recital disc ‘The Vagabond’ also includes Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel and the two Butterworth collections, and the rival Wagnerian with his wide-ranging gifts is as protean a performer as ever. In Vaughan Williams’s ‘Youth and Love’, where Terfel is unutterably tender, Rutherford’s straightforward style may seem to offer less, yet in its own way his judicious blend of music and words is just as eloquent. What we have here is a real-life contest of mastersingers, in which one Hans Sachs is pitted against another. If pushed, I would have to take Terfel; but Rutherford has given notice of a very appreciable talent for song. With accompaniments of exemplary precision, this disc is highly recommended. The obvious answer is to have both.