Britten on Record: Vaughan Williams – On Wenlock Edge

Britten on Record: Vaughan Williams – On Wenlock Edge (Decca)

Peter Pears (tenor), Zorian String Quartet, Benjamin Britten (piano)

Studio recording: Decca Studios, West Hampstead, London, 2-3 July 1945

1 On Wenlock Edge
2 From far, from eve and morning
3 Is my team ploughing?
4 Oh, when I was in love with you
5 Bredon Hill
6 Clun

Audio

1 On Wenlock Edge

2 From far, from eve and morning

3 Is my team ploughing?

4 Oh, when I was in love with you

5 Bredon Hill

6 Clun

Background and Critical Reception

‘There are some composers whose music I do not like, but performing it makes me analyse my reasons for the dislike, and so prevents it from becoming just habit or prejudice.’

This quote from Britten, made in 1944, offers an explanation a year before he and Peter Pears recorded Vaughan Williams’ song cycle on poems of Housman, On Wenlock Edge, for Decca. It is perhaps polite to say he was ‘ambivalent’ towards the music of Vaughan Williams, but that he was highly sceptical of the composer’s methods with folksong, and could not identify with much of his work.

And yet he was respectful of his fellow composer, offering the following tribute when he died: ‘We will miss him sadly – above all, his wonderful, uncompromising courage for fighting for all those things he believed in.’

This recording was made with the Zorian String Quartet, an all female group who gave the first performance of Britten’s own String Quartet no.2 at the Wigmore Hall on 21 November that same year.

Thoughts

If Britten did indeed dislike Vaughan Williams’ music that much, he had a funny way of showing it – for this is a truly beautiful recording that captures the pictures of the English countryside so elegantly crafted by its composer.

Peter Pears is at the top of his form here, too, bringing a compelling urgency to the title song, and a very controlled vibrato to From far, from eve and morning. There is a very ‘English’ sound to his interpretation, without being able to fully quantify what that is!

The start of Is my team ploughing? is deeply haunting, but builds to a very intense apex, Pears fully in control of the structure of the song. Yet the real jewel of this interpretation is found on Bredon Hill, where you can almost reach out and touch the early morning mist of the summer morning, thanks to the Zorian Quartet’s hazy introduction and Britten’s dappled chords.

Meanwhile the closing song, Clun, has a poignant intimacy, with Britten’s accompanying notes almost as soft in their attack as the strings are on the bow.

The recorded sound is very withdrawn, which is totally to be expected on a recording of this age, but it is very well remastered. Once the listener’s ear adjusts then Vaughan Williams’ picture painting, brilliantly rendered by these performers, can be fully appreciated.

Spotify

The performance of On Wenlock Edge can be listened to here.

Also recorded in 1945: Percy Grainger – Irish Tune from County Derry

Next up: Mozart – Piano Concerto no.19

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