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

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COMPOSERS: Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: On Wenlock Edge; Merciless Beauty; Ten Blake Songs
PERFORMER: John Mark Ainsley (tenor); Nash Ensemble
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?


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