5*’s Superb renditions of Vaughan Williams and a world premiere of a new Venables song cycle
Performers: Alessandro Fisher (ten); William Vann (pn); Navarra Quartet: ALBION 057
On Wenlock Edge is considered to be one of Vaughan Williams’s early breakthrough works—a relative term for a composer who was a slow starter, as he was 37 years old when he wrote it as a firstfruits of his four months of study with Ravel. The Four Hymns were completed in 1914, but due to the outbreak of World War I were not premiered until 1920. As shown by the comprehensive discography of the Vaughan Williams Society (rvwsociety.com/discography/), both sets have substantial representation on disc: 22 recordings for On Wenlock Edge (including historic recordings, one being by Gervase Elwes, the singer of the world premiere performance), and nine for the Four Hymns. The other tenors before now who have recorded both sets are John Mark Ainsley, James Gilchrist, Andrew Kennedy, Philip Langridge, Mark Padmore, Ian Partridge, Anthony Rolfe-Johnson, and Nicky Spence—a most distinguished line-up of English tenordom. (Of these, only Gilchrist’s recording is less than first-rate, and that only because he was recorded past his prime.)
Tenor Alessandro Fisher has only two previous entries in the Fanfare online archive, with a total of four reviews, two which do not mention him at all while the other two grant him only a brief complimentary mention. This is my first acquaintance with him, and I trust this review will rectify our previous neglect of him. He is an up-and-coming star, having won first prize at the 2016 Kathleen Ferrier Awards, followed by a 2018–21 stint as a BBC New Generation Artist. Those laurels are fully deserved, for Fisher is already an artist with interpretive depth to match a remarkable voice. Although he has mostly sung lighter repertoire to date (Mozart and songs), his voice has power and a degree of mettle as well as beauty and sheen, though he also shows how he can scale it down. His production is perfectly even, with a rapid vibrato but no wobble or beat; his intonation and breathing are secure, and his diction is clear and crisp. He also know how to shape a text by emphasizing words, or subtly lengthening them or cutting them short. He also is not afraid to stake out his own interpretive turf: this is probably the most extroverted reading of On Wenlock Edge I’ve ever heard, and he pulls it off with authority and assurance. The Four Hymns are heard in an excellent new arrangement for piano and string quartet accompaniment by Iain Farrington. (The versions by RVW are for either solo viola and piano or for orchestra; he apparently made one for string quartet and piano as well in 1925, but if so it is lost.) Fisher’s renditions rank with the finest of his predecessors, and Albion has scored a major coup in obtaining his artistry.
Albion has also scored a second coup here with the world premiere recording of Portraits of a Mind by Ian Venables, the result of a commission by the Vaughan Williams Society for RVW’s 150th anniversary in 2022. Back in 39:3 I reviewed a disc of songs by Venables that was my first exposure to his art, in which I declared: “… with The Song of the Severn, op. 43, premiered in 2013, Venables has penned an immortal work of genius.” For Portraits of a Mind, Venables has drawn upon five authors whose poems and person inspired RVW: George Meredith (“The Lark Ascending,”), Ursula Vaughan Williams (“Man makes delight his own”), Robert Louis Stevenson (“From a Railway Carriage”), Christina Rossetti (“Echo”), and Walt Whitman (“A Clear Midnight”), and set it for the same scoring as On Wenlock Edge. Venables has been unafraid to compose in an unfashionably conservative vein that follows the path laid down by RVW, the other English Pastoralists, Elgar, and Howells. Apparently Venables is a slow and painstaking craftsman, for in the last decade he has produced only a dozen works. But virtually everything he writes is top drawer, even if due to his concentration upon composing songs a certain sameness of musical utterance is noticeable, especially since his textual focus is usually introspective and ruminative (“From a Railway Carriage” is the exception here).
The results are again a triumph. Venables’s settings are exemplary for their sensitivity to the chosen texts and ability to underline and illuminate their meanings, and Fisher is an ideal vocal exponent thrilling in the sensitivity as well as the sheer beauty of his singing. Despite its numerous outings on disc, On Wenlock Edge receives rather few live performances because of the paucity of song cycle requiring the services of a string quartet. Venables has performed yeoman’s service in altering that situation, and Farrington’s adaptation of the Four Hymns provides a further welcome bonus. Let us hope that tenors and string quartets around the world now will take up this repertoire far more frequently.
With that in mind, let me not fail to mention pianist William Vann and the Navarra Quartet. Their playing throughout this disc is splendid, particularly the Navarra for exquisite beauty of string tone from all four of its members. The recorded sound of Albion is perfection itself: exactly the right distance from the artists, with each member perfectly balanced clear and warm. Complete song texts are included, along with exemplary essays by Venables and John Francis (the chairman of Albion Records), artist bios, and color photos in a typically splendid booklet. My 2023 Want List is already overcrowded with candidates (as usual), but this release fully deserves to be a contender. Enthusiastically, glowing recommended. James A. Altena