Vaughan Williams Songs

John Mark Ainsley’s performance is among his best on record in these austerely beautiful, imaginatively scored settings

Author: 
John Steane
Vaughan Williams Songs nash

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Songs

  • Merciless Beauty
  • (2) English Folksongs
  • (10) Blake Songs
  • Along the Field
  • On Wenlock Edge

The programme here has an identity of its own and as such is without competitors. Its ‘theme’ is to collect those of Vaughan Williams’s songs which have something other than piano accompaniment. On Wenlock Edge (1909) is for voice, piano and string quartet, Merciless Beauty (1921) with string trio, Along the Field (1927) and Two English Folksongs (published 1935 but of earlier date) voice and violin, and the Blake songs (1957) with oboe. Eligible for inclusion might have been Four Hymns (1914) with piano and viola, and, I suppose, The Willow Whistle (1939) for voice and pipe. The Three Vocalises of 1958, with clarinet, are specifically for soprano, but show the composer’s continuing taste for such combinations right into the last year of his life.
And there is a taste, a feel, to them. Whereas a piano accompanies almost in the literal sense of keeping the voice company, supporting it, even suggesting the home comforts of which the instrument has been normally part, the solo violin or oboe isolates it. The absence of chordal comforts disquiets; the instrument has its independent being, and between it and the voice intervenes a sometimes chilling sense of space. This is particularly so in the Blake settings and the Housman of Along the Field: these are not comfortable poems, and the strange fusion of interdependence and alienation between voice and instrument is entirely apt. All, I find, are memorable and deeply affecting compositions, and the disc makes a valuable contribution simply by associating them.
It also does much more, for the performances come very close to the heart’s desire. John Mark Ainsley’s tenor is wonderfully true in pitch and adaptability. He sings with the right sense of a civilised personal utterance, refined and restrained, yet capable of full-bodied tone and a ringing forte when needed: the cry ‘O noisy bells, be dumb’ is as emotional as an operatic climax and all the more effective for the exceptional frankness of its release. It seems to me he has rarely done better on record; these are highly demanding pieces, the voice unremittingly exposed, and he brings to them a fine poise, in breathing, phrasing, expression and the even emission of quite beautiful tone. He has also the great advantage of exceptional players to work with. Individually admirable, they combine in On Wenlock Edge to give an unusually imaginative performance. The attack of the opening phrase and the clarity of detail in what sometimes can sound like an impressionist smudge alert their listeners from the start; and probably never has the haze of summertime on Bredon been as potently evoked. A somewhat austere delight, perhaps, but a great one.'

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