Vaughan Williams’ Folk Song Arrangements

cover ALBCD044

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Folk Songs from the Eastern Countries. 12 Traditional Country Dances (piano solo). The Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. The Motherland Song Book, Vol. III / Mary Bevan, sop; Nicky Spence, ten; Roderick Williams, bar; *Chorus: Helen Ashby, Kate Ashby, sop; Cara Curran, alto; Benedict Hyams, ten; James Arthur, Nicholas Ashby, bs; William Vann, pno / Albion Records ALBCD044

This is the third volume in Albion’s series of Vaughan Williams’ complete folk song arrangements, but the first that intrigued me since it contains his early set of Folk Songs from Eastern Countries (1908) as well as the late (1959) Penguin Book of English Folk Songs. I’ve learned over the years that Vaughan Williams’ music was at its most interesting early (up through the mid-1920s) and late (post-World War II), but rather conventional and mundane in the years between.

Roderick Williams was one of my favorite of current British baritones, and he still has a lovely tone and excellent diction and interpretation, but his vibrato has become looser over the past few years. Nonetheless, his other skills are on display here, and his is clearly a level of artistry that demands one’s attention and respect. I’m not sure if Vaughan Williams considered Ireland to be an “Eastern Country,” but by golly, “Tarry Trousers” is an Irish song. Unlike Williams, soprano Mary Bevan’s voice remains firm as well as lovely, but to be honest neither her diction nor her interpretive skill are on the same level with him (I could understand about half the words she sang). Tenor Nicky Spence, on the other hand, does not have a really attractive tone, but his vibrato is not as loose as Williams’ and his diction is fairly excellent in its own right. So those are our singers.

As for the pianist, William Vann, he’s OK. Just OK. Not really bad, mind you, but to my ears not really fully engaged with the music. A well-programmed MIDI could have played as well. But what really “makes” this album is the simple fact that both Williams and Spence sing these like FOLK SONGS. They don’t give you that over-the-top operatic treatment that so often ruined the way classical singers approached these songs in the old days (one happy exception being the way baritone Leonard Warren sang those sea shanties).

Because of his just-OK approach to playing, the piano solo incorporating 12 country dances is also just OK (but at least not really bad, thank goodness). But since this is essentially a folk song collection it’s the way the words are sung and interpreted that matter the most, and on those two counts this is a really first-rate recording. In the last songs we even get a nice, lively chorus of six well-chosen voices who are just as enthusiastic as Roderick Williams, and that’s a real compliment. Highly recommended for those who enjoy this kind of music.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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