Lovely songs, but the orchestrations are second-best
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 10/26/2008
(4 out of 5 stars)
"In general these are forgotten arraangements, even though Vaughan Williams, Elgar, and Butterworth made the orchestrations themselve. Everything is beautifully sung and played, so collectors don't need to heistate. The two RVW song cycles with Robert Tear and Thomas Allen, under a young Simon Rattle, date from 1983, while the rest, conducted by the late Vernon Handley and sung by Tear, come from 1979.
I'm not convinced that general listeners need to buy this CD before hearing the standard piano versions (this would go without saying when it comes to, say, Wolf and Schubert lieder, which also get turned into orchestral versions here and there). Particularly in the case of "On Wenlock Edge" the nature of the music is drastically altered, for the worse. Originally the instrumentation was for string quartet and piano; the strange, almost ghostly timbre of that setting reflected the RVW's three-month study with Ravel in Paris, just before these songs were composed. When inflated with a string orchestra plus harp, celesta, and brass, we lsoe the haunting impressionistic atmosphere of quiet poems set to quiet melodies. I can see why the orchestral arragnement fell out of favor after a few performances in the 1920s.
As for "Songs of Travel," these are more robust songs, and they stand up to a full orchestra a bit better. The drawback here is that unlike Mahler's "Des Knaben Wunderhorn," the orchestral working-out is modest and cautious -- little is added through instrumental color. The solo voice is overshadowed for no particular reason. I realize that I've set myself at odds with the previous reviewer, who finds these orchestrations superior to the original piano-and-vioce versions, but there you go."