Site review by Geohominid August 10, 2012
Performance: Sonics (S/MC): /
|The sombre cover photograph of this disc, of the artists sitting on the pedestal of a War Memorial on either side of two red poppy wreaths, says much about its contents. Both Ivor Gurney (1890-1916) and George Butterworth served in the First World War trenches and died there; Vaughan Williams, an ambulance driver serving those same trenches, managed to survive.
This period at the beginning of the 20th Century was, for those English living in the rural heart of the country, a period of change in the landscape, mechanising agriculture, population migration to the cities and finally the drain of its manhood from the horrors of war. Such changes prompted deep self-examination, in turn promoting nostalgia and reminiscence by poets and composers. Outstanding in this field, the poetry of A.E. Houseman (1859-1836) was inspirational and avidly taken up by composers; world-wide, for example, there are over 160 song cycle settings of Houseman's 'A Shropshire Lad' alone, which seems to have cried out for music. Both Butterworth and Gurney were gladly given permission by A.E. Houseman to set his poems.
Rutherford and pianist Asti present a rich selection of the most significant Houseman songs on this disc, with Butterworth's two cycles 'Bredon Hill and other songs' and Six Songs' from "A Shropshire Lad", which were written about the same time. These are interspersed with Gurney's 'Four Songs from the Trenches'. Vaughan-Williams' 'Songs of Travel' are topped and tailed each by another Gurney song. Scotland at least gets a mention or two; from Gurney's 'Borders Ballad' (here sung with a sort of Scottish accent) and featuring Robert Louis Stevenson (author of 'Songs of Travel')! Here is a most attractive and well-laid out programme bringing together songs which, in other formats, are often found spread over several discs.
Bass-Baritone James Rutherford's extensive operatic repertoire is shadowed by his work in song recitals, and much of this programme has been featured (and no doubt developed) in his recent appearances in concert. I believe this to be his début disc for solo songs with piano, and an auspicious one it is too. Rutherford projects wonderfully controlled tone and diction through the airy, open acoustic of Potterton Hall in Suffolk, a favourite session location for many singers. His warm-voiced range is wide, a long-spun cantabile gracing VW's 'Youth and Love' from Songs of Travel, which also takes him down to the resonant bass part of his range. He can also thrill the listener with a jump from his normal baritone up into a soft sweet high note, which many a tenor might envy. All this is in true service of the poetic texts, with ample changes in colour and tone quality for vivid characterisations, of which there is a gamut on this disc. Listen, for example, to the macabre, chilling questions from a querulous ghost in Butterworth's 'Is My Team Plowing?' in a hollow, stunned half-tone, followed by the living young man's reply in the singer's fullest ebullient tone.
The Gurney songs are rendered with finely nuanced understanding of the underlying textual meanings, helped by shaded dynamics and effective rubatos. It is in Gurney's 'By a Bierside' where we find the disc's titular reference; "Most grand to die", adapted from John Masefield's Pompey the Great. Here, the indifference of Death is contemplated, with a powerfully dramatic broadening into a majestic, resounding affirmation from Rutherford and Asti that, indeed, it IS most grand to die. The last song on the disc, 'Sleep', is arguably Gurney's finest song, and forms a simply gorgeous and touching finale.
While VW's 'Songs of Travel' may be claimed by some to be "owned" by rival baritone Roderick Williams, Rutherford gives a sparkling performance of this odd love story which follows the vicissitudes of Stevenson's travelogue, with attention to its many giddy moods and more lightly concealed humour and irony.
Without doubt, the performance of American pianist Eugene Asti is a key feature of this recital. He studied with the world-renowned accompanist Graham Johnson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he now teaches. With faultless technique, deep poetic sensitivity and evident love for these pieces, he evokes the sunlit yesteryear landscapes of Central England, mourns the ever-present thoughts of men dying in vain, then brings heart to WV's Travels. I have to mention particularly his breath-taking rapt beauty in the preludes and postludes of the Butterworth songs, where he quietly relishes the composer's curdling harmonic progressions.
Little needs to be said about the first class 5.0 BIS recording; it simply transports music and musicians to your room, bestowing upon it the airy bloom of the venue, and adds all the subtle, deep sonority of a well-prepared Steinway D.
A deeply satisfying and generous compilation, creatively interpreted and performed with real flair and distinction. While, in the red-book world, there are circling flocks of tenors and baritones claiming your attentions on record for this repertoire, I urge you to give this disc an audition, and if you have not yet discovered these jewels of English songs, this is a wonderful place to start.
Copyright © 2012 John Miller and SA-CD.net