Recordings > Choral and Song

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Ten Blake Songs; On Wenlock Edge
DOVE: The End
WARLOCK: The Curlew 

spacer Padmore; Britten Sinfonia. Texts and translations. Harmonia Mundi HMU 807566

VaughanWillCD

Tenor Mark Padmore is an interpreter who illuminates mainstream repertoire especially through his probing treatment of texts. The music heard in this collection of English songs, which spans a full century, is not so familiar as the tenor's more customary Bach, Schubert or Britten. But there are discoveries and rediscoveries to be made here, as the listener basks in the remarkable company of poets A. E. Housman, William Blake, William Butler Yeats and — a name worth noting — the American Mark Strand (born in 1934).

Pulitzer-crowned and a former U.S. poet laureate, Strand constitutes an outlier in that British circle, but his "The End," published in 1990, inspired English composer Jonathan Dove to write a song for Padmore in 2012 that feels ideally suited to the interpreter and the poetry. While the words in "The End" keep looking back, saying what death is not,recalling routines and customs that will disappear in the vacuum of death ("when the time has passed to prune the rose or caress the cat"), the music is more direct: it suggests the chilly depths of that void, in melodic waves that also render the poem's imagery of an after-death ship voyage. At one point Dove evokes "all the birds … suspended in flight," in a vocal line that rises and gives an impression of sudden paralysis, thanks to the lightness and imaginative implications in Padmore's timbre.

Dove's tight formal cohesiveness is something we may miss in the moody, unfamiliar cycle The Curlew (setting Yeats poems) by Peter Warlock (1894–1930), in which brilliant instrumental details fail to coalesce and the skillful but text-bound meditative pace lacks relief, despite a rich, penetrating performance by Padmore and the sterling chamber musicians of the Britten Sinfonia. In the longest song, "I Cried When the Moon," Yeats's final refrain is not sung but spoken, finally achieving the flatness toward which the vocal writing seems to strive all along.

In On Wenlock Edge, composed in 1907, Ralph Vaughan Williams's conventional manner in setting six Housman poems seems to inspire Padmore to some excessive effects. Is the singer impatient with these innocent-sounding folkish treatments — or does he mistrust the listener's ability to catch the ironies in "Is My Team Still Ploughing?" That song's dialogue between a dead soldier and his faithless friend is about as subtle as an O. Henry short story and hardly needs all this heavy-handed cuing of the underlying deception. Like the rest of the cycle, this song works better in a more rustic, direct performance like those on the fine earlier recordings by Alexander Young or Ian Partridge. 

A half-century after On Wenlock Edge, just a year before his death, in 1958, Vaughan Williams achieved greater subtlety and complexity in his hypnotic settings of Blake poems, even including some sentimental ditties such as "The Lamb," which the composer called "that horrible little lamb, a poem I hate." The ten songs find Padmore in ideal territory. It is especially the intricate interweaving of voice and oboe — the only accompaniment — that so forcefully complements the poetry. (Nicholas Daniel, of the Britten Sinfonia group, is the fine oboist here.)

In the three Blake songs without any accompaniment at all, Padmore makes stunning use of his inventive phrasing and his emphasis of irregular pitch intervals, especially in the chromatic plaints in the harsh "London," a poem memorable for lines such as "How the Chimney-sweeper's cry / Every black'ning Church appalls." The vocal expressions of outrage in "Cruelty Has a Human Heart" are almost incredibly varied, with a sung vehemence that, in this case, springs straight from the poetry. spacer 

DAVID J. BAKER

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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4