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GRAMOPHONE (01/2023)
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Reviewer :
David Patrick Stearns

This meticulously curated programme from Ruby Hughes could be called  ‘The Quiet Album’. It intersperses Bach sarabandes for solo keyboard with the same composer’s Geistliche Lieder, followed by Purcell songs, folk songs and new music, including the 2017 song-cycle Echo by her pianist on the album, Huw Watkins. The trio of songs that end the album are so current that Deborah Pritchard’s ‘The World’ (2021) had Hughes working from manuscript. The total package is mostly of a piece, partly because the older music is often heard in discreetly modern realisations by the likes of Thomas Adès, Michael Tippett, Benjamin Britten and Colin Matthews. All are on the spare side (‘I wonder as I wander’ is nearly unaccompanied), leaving plenty of room for introspective, deeply probing performances – swathed in a warm, resonant acoustic – and adding to the sense that this music intersects well despite the separation of centuries. This is not an album to hear authentic Bach or Purcell – or to hear all the marvellous elements of Ruby Hughes’s voice. She holds back to an often-intense mezzo-piano with concentration and deep focus on the words. And to what purpose?

Conceptually, the album spreads its poetic wings so far and so effectively that you can’t locate a single philosophical centre, ensuring a fresh experience with each hearing. The combination of the title, ‘Echo’, and the quietude of the performances suggests that the album is out to remind us of the rewards that come with this kind of close listening – an experience similar but not exclusive to Arvo Pärt. In more conventionally loud music, a grand flourish can be followed with such an easing of tension that your ears slip into autopilot. On this recording, one’s ears go deeper into the next musical chapter.

The Watkins cycle is the soul of the album, with texts from Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson, Philip Larkin and others that contemplate life at its most elemental, such as the nature of consciousness, often with piano-writing built on a simple though emblematic idea – WB Yeats’s ‘When you are old’ has rumbling pianistic activity scaling down to nothing – and through-composed vocal lines that amplify the words in lyrical ways. Echo, in this context, seems to refer to one’s inner sonar in a voyage of self-examination. With the composer at the piano and Hughes effectively navigating the words, the cycle is a perfectly beguiling experience.

The inclusion of the last three songs by current composers is well meant but not entirely successful. This series of postscripts suffers from a lack of the context of the wider output of each composer. With the final song, Errollyn Wallen’s ‘Peace on Earth’, the text (written by the composer) describes a conventionally cosy Christmas but is accompanied with disembodied piano arpeggios that suggest a quiet, creepy lullaby. Definitely interesting. But Hughes’s pianissimo singing intentionally presents the words in a less-thanarticulated stream of vocal colour. Instead of achieving a poetic culmination, the album ends with a strange poetic misfire.



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