& other songs by
Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Finzi, Ireland
Malcom Martineau, piano
Deutsche Grammophon, 1995
The Vagabond is the solo debut recording of bass-baritone Bryn Terfel, released by Deutsche Grammophon in 1995 and still source of wonder for its many qualities: a young and already well trained voice and a rich programme focused on one of the favourite figures of the arts, the vagabond, represented both as a positive and as a negative figure in literature, painting and music. Maybe it is in this art that the vagabond is rarer, but, as Terfel proves, it is possible to centre a vocal cycle on him and even to add many intrinsic connections.
The Vagabond presents five famous works by four composers, all active between the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century and at least three of them, being Gerald Finzi apart, developed the same themes, or looked for inspiration in the same sources, or even dedicated a composition to an elder composer of this group. This is a correlation that is usually rare to find in a solo recording, adding an exquisitely intellectual pleasure to The Vagabond.
The first work is Songs of Travel, written by Ralph Vaughan Williams, a vocal cycle composed between 1901 and 1904 on texts by Robert Louis Stevenson. Next comes Gerald Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, composed for baritone and piano – and later for string orchestra – between 1929 and 1942. It sets to music five texts from William Shakespeare’s plays (Twelfth Night, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline and As You Like It) and premiered on 12 October 1942, on the occasion of the seventieth birthday of Ralph Vaughan Williams, dedicatee of the cycle.
The popular collection A Shropshire Lad, edited in 1896 by English poet Alfred Edward Housman, was widely parodied for what concerns its themes and style, but it exercised a particular charm among the composers, who composed under the influence of the lyricism and folklore of its texts. For example, A Shropshire Lad inspired Vaughan Williams, who composed six songs in On Wenlock Edge (1909) and four other songs in 1927, while another composer of The Vagabond, John Ireland, wrote six songs for piano and tenor in The Land of Lost Content (1921) and two others is We’ll to the woods no more (1928). These works are not included in Terfel’s recording, but two others, written by George Butterworth, are presented here: Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad in 1911 and Bredon Hill and Other Songs, a song cycle for baritone and piano composed in 1912.
Finally, The Vagabond collects three songs by John Ireland: his most famous Sea Fever (1913) on the text of one of the Salt-Water Ballads by John Masefield, The Bells of San Marie (1919) and The Vagabond (1922), strictly related to the song by Vaughan Williams.
It may be considered a superfluous consideration, but one of the best features of Terfel’s album is that it sets the atmosphere rightly from the first song, which is, not by chance, Vaughan William’s The Vagabond. It can be said that this song summarized several of the main features of the recording, but it does not exhaust them, as there are many other, sometimes opposite feelings to discover in the next works. Terfel sings the song The Vagabond with an undaunted sense of freedom and proudly claims it, without the need to pronounce the word. Moreover, it seems Terfel’s intention to stress that the uninterrupted wandering is a wish and a need at the same time, with all the powerful suggestions that this interpretation implies.
What is even more striking, especially as this outcome comes from a young singer, is that Terfel does not force his inspiration, but he carefully weighed it. His intuition and spontaneity, together with a fluid vocal line, is the secret of the efficacy of songs as Finzi’s sad Come away, come away, death and of Let Us Garlands Bring overall, of the easy and incisive expression of the rapturous contemplation of Sea Fever and of The Bells of San Marie and of the caressing The lads in their hundreds from Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. The horizon seems to widen as you continue to listen and this creates an enrichment – a mental enrichment – that is the best possible gratification for the listener.
It is true, The Vagabond is the first recording of Bryn Terfel, but it can be considered complete and exhaustive as it pleases the ear and the mind and offers many famous works in a personal and new way.