Vaughan Williams - James Gilchrist - The Telegraph

Inspired by his lessons from Ravel and also by the example of Fauré's La Bonne Chanson, Ralph Vaughan Williams returned home from Paris in 1908 to start a new fashion in English songwriting, one that used chamber-ensemble accompaniments rather than the more usual solo piano. He scored his own 1909 cycle on A E Housman's Shropshire Lad poems, On Wenlock Edge, for tenor and piano quintet, which a decade later inspired a Housman follow-up from Ivor Gurney, Ludlow and Teme. Then in 1923, with The Curlew, fellow songsmith Peter Warlock wrote his own undoubted masterpiece, this time setting W B Yeats for voice, flute, cor anglais and string quartet, which itself was followed some three decades later by a Cecil Day Lewis setting for the original piano quintet line-up from Arthur Bliss, Elegiac Sonnet. There were many other examples, but these particular works make such an obvious collection on disc that it is surprising they have not been grouped together more often. It helps having the artistry of tenor James Gilchrist on hand. His is a lighter-sounding voice than some of his contemporaries, but it gives him the colouring to negotiate the often folk-like melodic naivety of passages in this music while losing nothing in textual awareness. He has certainly got the expressive range to bring out the anger in Vaughan Williams's vivid setting of "Is My Team Ploughing" at the same time as the growing doom of "Bredon Hill". In this latter song, the playing of Anna Tilbrook and the Fitzwilliam Quartet is at its most finely featured, with hazy strings and the ever-more ominous tolling of the bells, and there is equal character in the Bliss sonnet. Gareth Hulse's cor anglais playing is aptly subtle in Warlock's portrayal of Yeats's curlew, and he is matched by the artistry of flautist Michael Cox. In all, an atmospherically recorded and consummately performed disc.

30 July 2007