An original Decca recording of the soprano Jennifer Vyvyan in English song repertoire, coupled with traditional folksongs with another much-loved English singer of the 1950s and 60s, Norma Procter.
In the August 1953 issue of Opera magazine, the editor looked back on outstanding vocal achievements in the preceding season of opera. Drawing largely from stagings in London, he could pick out Maria Callas as Norma, Kathleen Ferrier as Orpheus and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Boris Godunov. In this exalted company he placed a young English soprano who had made her professional debut just five years previously, singling out Jennifer Vyvyan as Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
Vyvyan’s penetrating soprano, ready dramatic wit and imposing presence had also caught the attention of Benjamin Britten. That professional debut was made in the premiere of his arrangement of The Beggar’s Opera, and just two months prior to Opera magazine’s editorial seal of approval, she had appeared as Lady Penelope Rich in the much-anticipated premiere of Gloriana. As a recorded complement to this Coronation opera, she had gone into the Decca studios in April and May (while Gloriana was in rehearsal) and recorded this survey of English song which was duly rush-released with a crown on the cover and an advertising legend on the back cover, ‘to commemorate the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’.
Aside from its incidental place in recorded history, however, ‘Songs of England’ has many charms of its own. The repertoire spans four centuries, from an anonymous lute-song and the evergreen madrigal by Thomas Morley, Now is the month of maying through to contemporary songs by Britten, Quilter and Vaughan Williams. In his booklet note, the critic Richard Wigmore draws particular attention to Vyvyan’s singing of Purcell: finding an instrumental purity of tone in Fairest Isle and lending both grace and agility to Nymphs and Shepherds.
Two years later, Decca issued a 10-inch LP of ‘Traditional Songs’ with the mezzo-soprano Norma Procter, who like Vyvyan had studied at the Royal Academy of Music with the doyen of British vocal coaches, Roy Henderson. Procter died in May 2017, and this reissue of her first solo recital on record is a fitting tribute to the memory of a singer whose ‘exquisite contralto’ was critically recognised right from her distinguished debut on disc as part of Sir Adrian Boult’s recording of Messiah.
This CD is one of five recordings released by Eloquence in September 2017 celebrating the art of Jennifer Vyvyan. All Decca recordings from the 1950s, many appearing for the first time on Decca CDs, they include ‘Mr. Bach at Vauxhall Gardens’ (482 5387), the first recording of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen (482 7449), arias by Mozart and Haydn (482 5049) and two litany settings by Mozart (482 5041).
‘I have no hesitation in giving pride of place this month to “Songs of England”… Miss Vyvyan is always good and often very good, Ernest Lush is an admirable partner and the recording is of excellent quality.’ Gramophone, September 1953