Plus Songs and Folk song arrangements

Mary Lewis, Tudor Davies, etc
British National Opera Company
Malcolm Sargent conductor

Albion Records ALBCD060

The operas of Vaughan Williams have never gained a permanent place in the repertory, which is a pity. Hugh the Drover, Sir John in Love, and particularly The Pilgrim’s Progress contain some wonderful music and really deserve the attention of our opera companies. Riders to the Sea is short and grim and needs to be in a double or triple bill, and the three other operas listed above all present problems. 

The Pilgrim’s Progress seems not be an opera at all, and Sir John in Love inevitably falls under the shadow of Verdi’s Falstaff (a comparison between the two should not be made!)  I have not mentioned The Poisoned Kiss which has a very shaky libretto, and a similar weakness has been seen to hinder Hugh the Drover. This recording dates from a couple of months after the professional première in 1924, and includes excerpts from the opera, plus songs and folk songs, some arranged by Cecil Sharp.

Vaughan Williams began work on Hugh the Drover or Love in the Stocks, his first opera,around 1910 and by 1914 it was complete. The librettist was Harold Child, a leader writer for The Times, and the work was first performed by students at the Royal College of Music in 1924, and then with professionals a little later that year with Malcolm Sargent conducting his first opera. The work then went on to tour and for a while was popular.

The CD booklet provides a synopsis written by Vaughan Williams, and the full text of the excerpts from the opera, which were recorded not long after the first professional performance, and of the songs. There is description of the recording progress which was clearly hazardous ‘Sargent was required to conduct from a shelf above the orchestra, safely harnessed to a wall, pushing the singer’s head into the recording horn with his left hand while conducting with his right!’.

As for the singing, it is tremendous, with Mary Lewis and Tudor Davies in good voice and totally involved in the drama. Also in the cast as the Sargeant is Peter Dawson.

The sound, which is of course boxy and hardly high fidelity, has been re-mastered by Pete Reynolds (a previous issue on Pearl has inferior sound quality). Listeners happy to hear singers originally performing on 78rpm records will be content, and it must be noted that there is a clarity of diction which is characteristic of the music-making of the time.

The excerpts run for nearly three quarters of an hour, and the seven songs and folk songs occupy the rest of the disc. These songs feature John Coates and Maggie Teyte, who Vaughan Williams had hoped would have been the protagonists in Hugh the Drover.

Review by Ronald Corp