Online Journal

John Mark Ainsley - tenor
The Nash Ensemble
Hyperion CDA67168
Full Price

We have become so used to listening to recordings of singers accompanied by a pianist; indeed, the piano is suited to this role in many ways due to its ability to produce not only harmony, but also a range of dynamics and colours. However, this CD demonstrates that other instrumentations can complement a vocal line as effectively, since here the accompaniment for twenty of the twenty-nine songs is by a solo instrument (either violin or oboe); a further three feature a string quartet. The piano appears only as part of a broader accompanimental palette in a quintet for the cycle On Wenlock Edge. This exploration of alternative forces was a trend amongst English composers of the early twentieth century, with Peter Warlock's The Curlew and Ivor Gurney's Ludlow and Teme being amongst the more famous examples.

The disc begins with three settings of Chaucer; the performers attempt to let the music speak through a simplistic approach that works well, even if the settings are not inspirational. Anyone with an aversion to what Elizabeth Lutyens called 'cowpat' music should definitely avoid the Two English Folksongs, with their talk of pretty maids, lambs and meadows. However, if one disregards her somewhat blinkered vision and accepts these songs as part of a musical heritage, it is possible to enjoy what Vaughan Williams adds by way of violin accompaniment, especially in The Lawyer, where the use of simultaneous pizzicato and arco gives a wonderful effect of two separate instruments - played here with great vigour and rhythmic drive. The matching of voice and oboe in Ten Blake Songs is perfect, and Gareth Hulse exploits well the plaintive and anguished colours of the instrument in songs such as Cruelty has a Human Heart and The Poison Tree. One of my few reservations about the recording is the order in which the works are presented: Ten Blake Songs is followed by the cycle Along the Field for voice and violin and the two-part counterpoint of both makes difficult listening if played back-to-back. Although both show Vaughan Williams' genius for implying harmony with two parts, for variety's sake it would have been good to hear them separated by Merciless Beauty which has a string quartet accompaniment.

John Mark Ainsley is no stranger to English song repertoire and his singing here demonstrates his understanding of that genre; the sense of ensemble is remarkable, especially when joined by only one other musician, a feature that undoubtedly contributes to the success of the recording. However, in some settings his approach could be slightly more dramatic and impulsive, especially when compared with Bryn Terfel's unorthodox, yet successful, approach to English song on his disc The Vagabond (Deutsche Grammophon 445 946-2). Thankfully, this is certainly not the case with On Wenlock Edge, which requires a keen sense of dramatic impulse from the performers. In Is my team ploughing? the sense of dialogue between the dead man and the friend who has betrayed him is captured to stunning effect. Throughout the cycle the playing is superb, from the shimmering strings of the opening through to Ian Brown's hazy, impressionistic piano playing in Bredon Hill, where plenty of evidence of the composer's study with Ravel is revealed.

Overall, this disc would be of interest to anyone with a fancy for English song and is worth buying, if only for the performance of On Wenlock Edge. Although the other works are of much more than simply musicological interest, they provide a fascinating historical insight into the English musical renaissance that is easily overlooked.

Gavin Meredith  

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