Vaughan Williams: Songs from the operas Hugh the Drover, Sir John in Love and The Pilgrim’s Progress

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Albion
ALBUM TITLE: The Sky Shall Be Our Roof
WORKS: Songs from the operas
Hugh the Drover, Sir John in Love and The Pilgrim’s Progress
PERFORMER: Sarah Fox (soprano), Juliette Pochin (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: ALB 001
Here’s a fine launch for Albion, the label established by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society to showcase his less familiar music – though thankfully this material is no longer so rare. Frustrated by the lack of access audiences had to his operas, Vaughan Williams arranged these selections for small-scale performance with piano accompaniment, fluently played here by Iain Burnside. They may still provide intriguing ‘tasters’ for these splendid works.

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Some stand a little awkwardly without orchestral underpinnings, particularly those from Hugh the Drover (the 1924 original, otherwise available only on Pearl’s abridged original-cast disc). It’s surprising, though, how much impact Hugh and Mary’s heady closing duet retains without the Puccinian orchestration. In others, too, the exposed vocal line gains something, reminding you just what marvellous melodies this man could write – and how well they repay performers of this quality.

Sarah Fox and Roderick Williams are seasoned Vaughan Williams exponents, her clear, soaring tone ideal for Mary, his gently mellow baritone for the Pilgrim’s Progress songs. Juliette Pochin’s light-hued mezzo makes ‘Song of the Water of Life’ surprisingly sexy. Andrew Staples is an elegant lyric tenor, but Hugh the Drover’s best exponents, creator Tudor Davies and James Johnston, were robust spinto roughnecks; Staples’ genteel diction suggests Hugh the Quantity Surveyor. He shines, though, in the radiant Elizabethan lyric ‘See the Chariot’ from Sir John in Love. Altogether, recommendable to enthusiasts, agreeable listening generally.

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Michael Scott Rohan