The First World War took its toll on a whole generation but George Butterworth was probably British music’s greatest loss, killed on the Somme in 1916. Ivor Gurney survived, but was confined to a mental hospital for most of his remaining life. Ralph Vaughan Williams escaped with impaired hearing but his musical outlook was darkly coloured by his wartime experiences.
Programming these composers side by side isn’t unusual (Simon Keenlyside’s excellent Songs of War is still fresh in my ears), but when the singer is as good as James Rutherford it’s a pleasure to revisit the repertoire. The songs were mostly written before the conflict and so are not all as mournful as the CD cover might suggest. Death is a regular guest of A E Housman, and Gurney’s poems are certainly elegiac, but there is much idyllic music here as well. Butterworth’s Bredon Hill and On the Idle Hill of Summer, Gurney’s Severn Meadows and Sleep and Vaughan Williams Let Beauty Awake and Bright is the Ring of Words are among the finest songs in any language.
James Rutherford’s is a substantial baritone voice, darker than Bryn Terfel’s but with plenty of bite. Thomas Allen (or indeed Keenlyside) may bring one or two additional insights but Rutherford has much to say. Asti is a sensitive partner, allowing space for the singer to breathe while contributing some memorable moments of his own.