King of the Golden River SOMM

Déjà Review: this review was first published in May 2000 and the recording is still available. Ian Lace passed away in 2021.

The King of the Golden River
Sarah Rodgers (b.1953)
The King of the Golden River
Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
On Wenlock Edge
Edmund Rubbra (1901-1986)
Amoretti – Five sonnets by Edmund Spenser
Ave Maria Gratia Piena – Two Medieval Songs
Sir Arnold Bax (1883-1953)
O Mistress Mine
My Eyes for Beauty Pine
Richard Edgar-Wilson (tenor)
Coull Quartet
James Lisney (piano) 
rec. 1999, All Saint Church, East Finchley, London
SOMM Recordings SOMMCD222 [75]

Sarah Rodgers setting of John Ruskin’s famous children’s story, The King of the Golden River, is a substantial 29-minute work cast in three movements. The story, a morality tale, concerns three brothers working in a secluded, richly fertile valley hemmed in by mountains with its high river descending over an imposing waterfall. The older brothers, Hans and Schwartz are mean and grasping, while the youngest, Gluck, is fair and giving. They are put to the test by South West Wind who devastates their valley, after he suffers the hostility of the two elder brothers. When Gluck’s figuratively decorated drinking mug is melted down for its gold, it releases The King of the Golden River. He tells Gluck that the River will turn to gold if three drops of Holy water are cast into it. If anybody should toss in unholy water, however, they would be turned to stone, which is what happens to the two elder brothers after they refuse water to an old man, a child and a dog. The generous Gluck gives water to all three and his holy water returns the valley to its former glory.

Although there is much to admire in this composition, I felt disappointed with the instrumental writing: sometimes evocations could have been sharper and characterisation and drama more intense. This is definitely not the case in Rodgers’ shimmering depiction of “The Golden River fell in a column of pure gold” and in the scene where South West Wind makes his vengeful return. The evocation of “The room was full of water and by a misty moonbeam the brothers could see the gentleman ‘You’ll find my card upon the kitchen table! – And remember I will never call again'” is tingling enough but unfortunately the mood is dashed by a feeble evocation of the resultant desolation and despair. Perhaps the Coull Quartet needed to invest some more attack and contrast in their playing? Richard Edgar-Wilson’s voice has an appealing timbre and his delivery is confident and firm.

On firmer, more familiar ground, this performance of Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge is excellent. Edgar-Wilson and the Coull players excel themselves, and the piano playing of James Lisney is well-nigh perfect – listen to his wonderfully expressive bell figures in Bredon Hill; jubilant then mournful, their weight and timing beautifully judged. The Coull Quartet’s gales in ‘On Wenlock Edge’ are chill and sharp indeed. Edgar-Wilson alternates plaintive, turning to indignant questions with assertive then half-apologetic answers in a more than usually characterful ‘Is my team ploughing.’ ‘Bredon Hill’ the centrepiece of the cycle impresses strongly, a most moving rendering.

The two short pieces by Bax were presumably inspired by his torrid love affair with Harriet Cohen. Both ‘O Mistress Mine’ from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Robert Bridges ‘My Eyes for Beauty Pine’ have important roles for violin in sweet demeanour. The Shakespeare setting trips merrily along while the Bridges has passion mixed with languor – two beautiful and richly subtle settings.

The Rubbra settings of Edmund Spenser’s sonnets are faithful to the spirit of their period and are both beautiful and moving if, with the exception of the more light-hearted skipping Fresh Spring, rather mordant. Ave Maria Gratia Plena is Rubbra’s pairing of two songs written 30 years apart – ‘O my deir Hert’ a simple yet haunting setting of a medieval text, and the later ‘O Excellent Virgin Princess’ a more complex yet no less satisfying setting.

Another enterprising album from SOMM that deserves to succeed

Ian Lace

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