Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge; Ten Blake Songs
The opening of On Wenlock Edge is like a sudden, powerful, invigorating gust of wind – which is pretty much how it should be, and yet so rarely is. The centrepiece of the cycle, ‘Bredon Hill’, is very moving, almost unsettlingly so. In slighter songs, such as ‘From far, from eve and morning’, there will no doubt be those who prefer a sweeter, more oboe-like English tenor. Edge, rather than lyrical elegance, is Mark Padmore’s expressive strength, combined with his superb diction. But put him against a real oboe in the Ten Blake Songs and the contrast is acutely telling: the oboe becomes the beguiling singer, Padmore the incisive or seductive narrator, digging into the words. I’ve never heard these radically economical settings come across so convincingly.
The Philip Glass-like undulating strings in Jonathan Dove’s The End aren’t initially promising. But Dove’s voice and woodwind writing is lovely – in ways that probably wouldn’t have surprised Vaughan Williams – and again Padmore draws out so many strands of expression. After this The Curlew does its devastating work with keen efficiency. It’s good to hear this music performed with plenty of contrast in colour and expression, rather than as wearily generalised study in suicidal depression. And while Padmore shows his usual skill in teasing out meanings, his strong sense of pitch helps too: Warlock’s remarkable harmonic thinking is unusually well focused in this performance. Lavish praise too for the wonderful playing of the Britten Sinfonia. In The Curlew and On Wenlock Edge their playing has orchestral richness and chamber intimacy. And the whole thing is beautifully recorded. I shall be coming back to this.