Vaughan Williams, Gurney

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Gurney,Vaughan Williams
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: On Wenlock Edge, The Western Playland; Ludlow and Teme
PERFORMER: Adrian Thompson (tenor), Stephen Varcoe (baritone), Iain Burnside (piano); Delmé String Quartet
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 66385 Reissue (1989)
‘I always give my consent to all composers in the hope of becoming immortal somehow.’ Thus wrote AE Housman – and it certainly worked. This clutch of reissues celebrates the dormant music awakened from the hidden nuances and ambiguities within Housman’s naive rhymes and passionate monosyllables by nine English composers and one American.

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Anthony Rolfe Johnson and Graham Johnson reveal that Butterworth still reigns supreme in his miracles of instinctive melodic response to Housman’s verbal inflection, and in his exquisitely matched piano-writing. After listening to all these settings and more, the opening of Butterworth’s ‘Is my team ploughing?’ remains one of the eternal wonders of European song. John Ireland’s nostalgic harmonies act as a foil to EJ Moeran’s lucent simplicity and to the poignancy of Samuel Barber’s and Lennox Berkeley’s youthful tenderness. And Johnson and Johnson are welcome champions of the still undersung CW Orr, whose questing settings make him something of the Hugo Wolf of English song.

Alan Bates’s quiet, admirably understated readings nicely complement Rolfe Johnson’s lingering, lyrical performances: together they cover every poem in A Shropshire Lad. But there are still more settings. Some of the most eloquent are by Ivor Gurney, whose poet’s ear was fine-tuned to Housman’s own inner music. Adrian Thompson and Stephen Varcoe take a cycle each and, with the Delmé Quartet and Iain Burnside’s minutely sentient piano-playing, are sympathetic to the composer’s supple and subtle melodic meditations. Thompson also takes on the broader canvases of Vaughan Williams.

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David Wilson-Johnson and David Owen Norris are well cast for the striding melodic assurance of Arthur Somervell the Victorian, in the earliest and by far the thickest-skinned Housman settings of them all. Hilary Finch