Here was an inspired piece of programming: a chamber and song recital spanning the careers of Vaughan Williams and his teacher for three months in 1908, Maurice Ravel. Together with the Navarra String Quartet and accompanist Roger Vignoles, the tenor Mark Padmore delivered a poignant musical account of the friendship between the two composers.
The project proved fruitful. After all, it was this relationship that provided Vaughan Williams with his “French Polish” when he returned from Paris, while Ravel, for his part, also emerged with a fresh approach to composition, along with a soft spot for steak and kidney pudding.
Such influences were apparent to varying degrees in Wednesday’s programme. Vaughan Williams was not one to ape his teacher’s style – as Ravel himself admiringly pointed out. Procris and Menelaus (from Four Last Songs), for example, with their bleak, clean-cut lines, are very different beasts from Ravel’s highly fragranced Cinq mélodies populaires grecques. Nevertheless, the exotic sonorities in Vaughan Williams’s “The Sky Above the Roof” bear the Gallic stamp, as do the vibrant chromaticisms in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge.
And as far as shared influences were concerned, none was more apparent than the shadow of the first world war. Ravel’s Ronsard à son âme, Vaughan Williams’s Three Poems by Walt Whitman and The New Ghost (the third of Four Poems by Fredegond Shove) – all composed after 1920 – are tinted with a powerful sense of loss.
In all songs, Padmore demonstrated his characteristically unforced approach, allowing himself to be carried by the music’s natural tides rather than producing them artificially. The New Ghost was sung with a tenderness carefully adapted to the fragile vocal contours; Ravel’s Sainte, whose text claims that unheard music is the sweetest, had a real sense of wonder about it, as if Padmore were uttering the words for the first time.
The tenor was in good company with the Navarra Quartet. After a nimble rendition of Ravel’s String Quartet they joined Padmore for his performance of On Wenlock Edge. It was the most memorable part of the evening. Padmore pulled back the volume to little more than a whisper, saying all that needed to be said with hauntingly beautiful results.