Vaughan Williams - James Gilchrist - The Observer

Sooner or later, all high quality British tenors add On Wenlock Edge to their recording catalogues. Now it's the turn of James Gilchrist to breathe new life into this most English of song cycles. Vaughan Williams wrote it in 1909 after a spell in Paris studying with Maurice Ravel, but it is English to the core. Ivor Gurney wrote after hearing it for the first time: 'England is the spring of emotion, the centre of power and the pictures of her, the breath of her earth and growing things are continuously felt through the lovely sound.'

And lovely sound is at the core of this recording. Gilchrist sings with a gossamer tone that floats effortlessly through these settings of six AE Housman poems from A Shropshire Lad. Unusually for the time, Vaughan Williams chose a piano quintet to accompany the songs. Later this was expanded for full orchestra, which adds extra lustre, particularly at the opening to 'Bredon Hill', where the music hangs in the still air like the smell of new-mown hay. In this recording, with only single strings and piano, the texture is altogether different, though all the more interesting for the detail that is exposed. The post-industrial, rural tranquility of Housman's idealised Shropshire is perfectly captured.

These quirky texts have been explored by many British composers but no one can surpass the subtlety of VW's sophisticated approach, amply interpreted here by Gilchrist. He gives 'Is my team Ploughing?' that strange question-and-answer-poem, a real narrative drive, and his 'Bredon Hill' - the core of the cycle - is glorious. On Wenlock Edge inspired others to set Housman to music, among them Ivor Gurney, who produced Ludlow and Teme in 1919 using the same piano quintet accompaniment as Vaughan Williams, his teacher at the time. Gilchrist brings the same plangent tone to these songs, and also revels in Peter Warlock's The Curlew and Arthur Bliss's Elegiac Sonnet. This is an excellent collection for lovers of English song.

The Observer
15 July 2007