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Vaughan Williams - James Gilchrist - ClassicsToday.com


18 July 2007
ClassicsToday.com
David Vernier
4½ Stars

Vaughan Williams' song cycle On Wenlock Edge not only has enjoyed many fine performances, but its place in the composer's development and its uncommon scoring--for solo tenor with piano and string quartet--also has inspired some interesting and inventive programming on recordings. Some performers opt for a chronological survey, remaining within the genre of solo songs with piano and including Wenlock Edge as a kind of bonus (Anthony Rolfe Johnson on Naxos--originally released on Collins Classics); others exploit the work's "French connection" owing to Vaughan Williams' study with Ravel in 1908 (Philip Langridge, Howard Shelley, and the Britten Quartet on EMI, which includes Ravel's Quartet in F and Vaughan Williams' distinctly Ravellian Quartet in G minor); another program groups On Wenlock Edge with other Vaughan Williams songs accompanied by various instruments--violin, oboe, string trio (John Mark Ainsley and the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion); still another offers a later version of On Wenlock Edge for orchestra (Ian Bostridge with the London Philharmonic on EMI).

And then there is this new release that offers yet another concept: works by different 20th-century English composers that employ the same scoring as On Wenlock Edge (the Warlock piece is even more unusual, replacing the piano with flute and cor anglais). Consequently, we get to hear three very fine but rarely recorded works along with yet another superbly sung and played rendition of Vaughan Williams' beloved settings of poems by A.E. Housman.

Tenor James Gilchrist has a clear, ringing tone that may impress some listeners as a bit bright--especially when compared to the warmer, rich-centered tone of Ainsley or Langridge or Bostridge--but he's an excellent interpreter with technique to match, effectively capturing the dark despair of the lonely lover in Warlock's The Curlew (settings of poems by Yeats) and the wide range of dramatic expression in the Vaughan Williams and in Ivor Gurney's marvelously tuneful cycle Ludlow & Teme, modelled after Wenlock Edge both musically and in its use of Housman poems.

Arthur Bliss' 1954 work, Elegiac Sonnet (words by Cecil Day Lewis), was composed as a memorial to a pianist friend who committed suicide at 31 and was first performed by Peter Pears, Benjamin Britten, and the Zorian Quartet. It's a beautiful tribute that movingly ends: "Laurels enough he had. Lay on his heart a flower he never knew--the rose called peace."

There's a similarity of style that runs through all of these works, probably owing much to the nature of the poetic themes and language but even more to the uniquely English nostalgic/romantic world in which they were created. All of the musicians here--particular kudos to pianist Anna Tilbrook--deliver performances that seem of one mind and one heart, with Gilchrist proving an ideal advocate for these first-rate but difficult-to-program works. The sound represents Linn's usual high standard. Excellent!


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On Wenlock Edge - Ralph Vaughan WilliamsOn Wenlock Edge - Ralph Vaughan Williams