Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge

Padmore is something special in Wenlock, while the Quintet is striking

Author: 
John Steane

Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge

  • On Wenlock Edge
  • Piano Quintet

Wenlock Edge is experiencing a degree of congestion unique, I should think, in its history. A short while ago Andrew Kennedy was there (Signum, 4/08) and shortly before him James Gilchrist (Linn, 9/07), joining their predecessors including Bostridge, Rolfe-Johnson, Tear and Partridge. There is still room of course for Mark Padmore (but not perhaps too many more), especially as he brings along with him the Schubert Ensemble, who bring in turn the early, and only recently published, Piano Quintet.

This dates from 1903, with revisions completed in 1905, which was the year of its first and probably only performance until its rediscovery in 1999. At first it sounds like a student work insofar as the composer has not found the voice which we now know as his. As Michael Kennedy writes in his notes, “the shadow of Brahms” is a presence, and I think, at times in the first movement, that of Rachmaninov too. But of course the “voice” may well have been Vaughan Williams’s at the time; at least there is no trace of affectation. I’ve come to like it immensely over several playings of this recording and comparisons with the earlier version by the Nash Ensemble (Hyperion, 1/03). The new recording of the Quintet has not quite such sharp, immediate presence, but I live with it more easily and find that the slight tightening-up of tempi brings a greater cohesion.

In the song-cycle Padmore, always thoughtful and sympathetic, conveys a more personal feeling than Andrew Kennedy but hasn’t the communicative urgency of Gilchrist. His way with “Is my team ploughing?” is rather special, with the ghost-voice diffident and distant at first, then advancing, and with the third verse standing as it were face-to-face with the survivor, whose own voice recedes with the deadly last words. The Romance and Pastorale for violin and piano are welcome companion-pieces, the Romance suggesting (as Michael Kennedy says) “a study for The Lark Ascending”: a lark, perhaps, that has yet to learn how far it can fly.

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