The Ballad of the White Horse; An English Ballad
Ashley Riches (baritone); City of London Choir; Paulina Voices; BBC Concert Orchestra/Hilary Davan Wetton
EM Records EMRCD057 64:30 mins
M Records’ second disc devoted to John Gardner is dominated by The Ballad of the White Horse, a 50-minute cantata in eight movements first heard in 1959. Drawing on Chesterton’s epic poem of the same name for its text, it putatively tells the story of King Alfred and the Danes. The title refers to the Uffington horse, which Chesterton and Gardner use as a barometer of England’s ethical purity, both then and in modern times. Unlike Gardner’s earlier works, The Ballad of the White Horse is self-consciously conservative in style, reminiscent of the less abrasive aspects of Britten, Vaughan Williams or Walton.
An attractive and well-crafted work, it is easy to understand why Gardner regarded it as his most successful cantata, especially in a performance as committed as this. Ashley Riches is a commanding soloist, his diction never losing clarity in the various places where he moves the story on, such as at the heart of the longest movement, ‘The Harp of Alfred’. The City of London Choir and Paulina Voices sing with rousing gusto in the more rambunctious passages, such as ‘The Battle of Ethandune’, yet with control and hush in the numerous mysterious or poetic moments, such as the barely accompanied opening of ‘The baptism of Guthrun’. Both here and in the purely instrumental and charmingly quirky An English Ballad (1969), the BBC Concert Orchestra is typically assured and nuanced, while Hilary Davan Wetton paces the performances adroitly.