Vaughan Williams: On Wenlock Edge; Merciless Beauty; Ten Blake Songs

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: On Wenlock Edge; Merciless Beauty; Ten Blake Songs
PERFORMER: John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Nash Ensemble
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67168
Vaughan Williams is well known as a composer who thought comfortably in big forms: symphonies, ambitious choral works, expansive meditations like Job and the Tallis Fantasia. But the solo songs can be just as fine. The Housman cycle On Wenlock Edge is a vividly atmospheric, emotionally powerful masterpiece, admired even by the normally VW-allergic (Benjamin Britten for instance), while the Ten Blake Songs are perhaps the most subtly original product of the composer’s extreme old age – who’d have thought that the combination of voice and oboe could be so richly expressive?

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It would be hard to find an interpreter more beautifully suited to the Blake Songs than John Mark Ainsley. His marvellous pianissimo – delicate and deeply touching at the same time – is heard at its best unaccompanied, or with only Gareth Hulse’s smooth-toned oboe to contend with. His light touch is also welcome in the gleeful ‘Since I from Love escaped am’ that ends Merciless Beauty – it’s easy to overdo the humour, but Ainsley holds back a little at first, like a man who’s just realised that losing the girl of your dreams may not be all bad news. I’m not so sure about On Wenlock Edge, though: there are moments of spellbinding poetry, but force is lacking at the bitterly regretful climax of ‘Bredon Hill’. If EMI ever re-release Philip Langridge’s stirring performance with the Britten Quartet, that would head my list; otherwise try Ian Bostridge in the orchestral version, also on EMI, for singing which combines tender intimacy, passion and drama. Stephen Johnson