English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was not the first, nor would he be the last, to fall under the spell cast by A. E. Housman in his collection of poems called “A Shropshire Lad.” Vaughan Williams responded to the typically English, pastoral poetry by creating one of the most typically English and pastoral song cycles in the repertoire. Adding a string quartet to the usual “art song” combo of voice and piano, he effectively paints a musical picture of an ancient, green landscape where people and traditions and ghosts wander without regard for the passage of time. Tenor Andrew Kennedy may not have the name recognition on these shores of Anthony Rolfe Johnson, whose recording of these songs is also available on eMusic, but he reins in the vibrato a bit more than his celebrated colleague, which suits the mood here quite well. (On the other hand, Rolfe Johnson's recording is more finely balanced, and the ensemble is absolutely top class — either set will do fine.)
There is an urgency to the opening song, also called “On Wenlock Edge,” that is a welcome balance to the slower, more intimate pieces that follow. (Don't be afraid to spend a download on the 44-second “Oh When I Was in Love with You” — a jolly respite from the melancholy, bittersweet air of the overall piece.) The highlights are probably “From Far, From Eve & Morning” and “Bredon Hill” — hushed, bucolic, yet slightly dark tales, tellingly and subtly scored. They show the influence of English folk song — a major source of Vaughan Williams'inspiration.
The album includes two other settings of Housman: Igor Gurney's “Ludlow and Theme” was written about 10 years after Vaughan Williams'1909 collection, and while this may not be a rediscovered masterpiece, it is a lovely collection in a similarly idyllic vein. Ian Venables wrote his setting, “Songs of Eternity and Sorrow,” in 2004… yet, like Housman's Shropshire hills and towns, it seems to have ignored the passage of time and fits perfectly with these early 20th century songs.