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CD Review

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Folk Songs of Britain

19 Traditional Folk Songs arranged by Vaughan Williams
Desmond Dupré, lute
Deller Consort/Alfred Deller
(Eileen Poulter, Mary Thomas, Alfred Deller, Wilfred Brown, Gerald English, Maurice Bevan, Geoffrey Coleby)
Vanguard Classics OVC8109 50:51
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Summary for the Busy Executive: 19 gems.

It is well-known that British folk music greatly inspired Vaughan Williams throughout his long career. The settings here, for example, come from as early as 1912 to as late as 1943. He was also working on further settings when he died. Indeed, one notes the tendency in some writers to view Vaughan Williams as bumptiously folky himself, a naïve, "home-made" artist. This grossly misunderstands the nature of the composer's achievement, far closer to Bartók's than to, say, Grieg's. Vaughan Williams was, among other things, a Cambridge intellectual, who had studied in England, Germany, and France with considerable teachers, including Parry, Stanford, Bruch, and Ravel. He knew the music of his time better than most because he made the effort to seek it out. To all the other places he lived, he preferred London. He was a Londoner as surely as Aaron Copland was a New Yorker, despite the "evidence" of Appalachian Spring.

The settings on this CD struck me most forcibly in their variety. We have early work from 1912, originally for voice and piano (here done by voice and lute), very similar to the arrangements of Cecil Sharp. We also have what amounts to major recomposition. However, far from finding a style suitable to folk music, Vaughan Williams invents several styles, or, rather, he fits the setting to the style he works in for other music as well. This becomes most apparent when you compare different arrangements of the same tune – something, for obvious reasons, the CD doesn't provide. The only relatively "straight" arrangement in the program is the composer's version of "Greensleeves" (1943). He recasts the well-known instrumental interlude from his opera John in Love (1929) for voices. At the same time, however, he didn't in the first place write the obvious. The harmony has a bit of sour to it, much like the sixth and seventh symphonies, also from the Forties. One gets the impression that he occasionally went back over previous work to mine nuggets that he had previously missed or to develop hints into something full-blown and new. "Bushes and Briars" – not just a favorite tune of the composer's, but one that functioned as a major revelation and set him on his artistic path – has the austerity of Holst's "Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John," while "Ward the Pirate," for men's voices, takes florid vocal ornament to an exuberant extreme. How he manages the latter within the restricted range of men's voices is a lesson in craft all by itself. I could talk about each track beyond the limits of boredom, so I'd prefer to mention those settings that, among small masterpieces, stand out.

"My Boy Billy," from 1912, deftly unfolds in a 4 + 3 meter, most likely in the manner the folk singer (in this case, undoubtedly a member of the folk) originally sung it to Vaughan Williams. Vaughan Williams' genius lies in the fact that he knew gold when he had it and didn't try to "correct" the rhythmic oddity. "An Acre of Land" sounds simple and unforced, but close examination reveals some rather sophisticated dissonance which sneaks past the ear. "The Lover's Ghost," "The Wassail Song," "Bushes and Briars," and "Just as the Tide was Flowing" count as the most elaborate arrangements on the program, all with structures that push past and to some extent work against the strophic arrangement of the original songs. "Ca' the Yowes" and "Loch Lomond" are, in Keats's phrase, their own excuse for being – heartrending beauty. You wouldn't think an old chestnut like "Loch Lomond" had anything new to tell you, but Vaughan Williams brings out its very deep beauties – the ones that custom has caused most of us to skip over. The composer forces you to listen again.

Britain has been particularly blessed in the high quality of its small vocal ensembles. The first group of note, the English Singers, encouraged by its very existence a flowering of other such groups dedicated mainly to the Tudor madrigal. However, the English Singers were never simply an antiquarian outfit. They sought out repertoire from contemporary composers, and to them we owe many works by Vaughan Williams, Holst, Finzi, Bax, and so on. They toured throughout Europe and may have spawned the Boulanger madrigal group. For certain, they influenced the music and compositional outlook of Bohuslav Martinů, who heard them in Prague and was inspired to a new kind of counterpoint. The Deller Consort was firmly in that tradition. Alfred Deller, of course, almost single-handedly revived the counter-tenor voice and stimulated new interest in that repertoire. He was one of the principals in the modern Purcell revival, for example. Now, of course, we have our pick of counter-tenors, any one of which – from the standpoint of vocal beauty – could sweep Deller off the stage. Deller's voice took some getting used to, but he was a superb singer. His phrasing and sense of line, his command of dynamics from anywhere within a phrase, amounted to absolute. For me, he's one of the great singers of the previous century. His Consort recorded not only English madrigal masterpieces, but French, Italian, and German ones as well. Later groups like the Elizabethan Singers, the Purcell Singers, the Wilbye Consort, and the King's Singers may have produced a more suave and beautiful sound (Deller's voice to some extent grated against his colleagues', although he blended better as he went along), but they don't communicate any more deeply. Furthermore, they all owe something to the Deller Consort's example.

The performances here count as some of the best work the Consort ever did. This is, in fact, a classic album. I'd snap it up before it goes out of print.

Copyright © 2002, Steve Schwartz