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<<  -- 3 --  Adrian Williams    JOHN RUSSELL FRCM (1916-1990)

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As a 'Brother Savage', John soon introduced me to the fraternity of gentlemen who whiled away many hours without the possibility of an appearance by the wife. On many occasions John and I hailed a cab outside the RCM after my lesson (one very cold evening John truly frightening the cab driver with a coughing fit resulting in a spectacular display of under-collar steam) and headed off to The Savage Club, then in Fitzmaurice Place near Green Park. I recall the first person I met in those revered, dim rooms, propping up the bar -- 'Humphrey, this is one of my worst students, Adrian Williams' -- Searle's 2nd Symphony had impressed me, although not knocked me out, at Watford Town Hall years before, whilst elderly concert-goers squirmed. Krips and the LPO doing Humphrey Searle in Watford -- unthinkable now, almost so in the early 70s. The composer acknowledged me but quickly resumed some involved conversation in twelve-tone, furrowed-brow cigarette haze. I attended a few dinner-jacketed Savage Club dinners too, including one 'ladies' night', all the boys on their best behaviour. Ladies' night concert, John in tearful ecstasy at the piano accompanying Liza Lehmann's In a Persian Garden with a cluster of distinguished singers in relaxed mood, including I think Margaret Cable and Marion Studhulme who I knew well at the RCM. Then me crashing through Balakirev's Islamey to tumultuous applause and another guest Tanya Polunin saying 'not bad'. Midget comedian Wee Georgie Wood being carried onto the little stage for some act. Then back to Reading by car with John's wife Margaret.

The Hollies, Burghfield Common, next to Ben's Folly, the Russell family home until the early 70s
The Hollies, Burghfield Common, next to Ben's Folly, the Russell family home until the early 70s

It wasn't long after I came to know John that I was invited to Ben's Folly. John had lived in Reading for years and then in a house large enough for their six children in Burghfield Common, 'The Hollies'. Before I knew John came Ben's Folly; Ben, the youngest of the clan being an architect, designed the entirely wooden house next door to The Hollies, set well back from the road with large patch of land to the rear, sloping a little away to the west overlooking undulating Berkshire fields. Margaret kept John in order with a healthy diet, eggs from their own chickens, homemade brown bread, jam, yoghurt. Everything organic and home made as far as possible.

Ben's Folly, Burghfield Common, the Russells' home from the early 70s
Ben's Folly, Burghfield Common, the Russells' home from the early 70s

Even the rich Christmas cake which I somehow came to ice for them, melting the marshmallows, mixing the paste, peaking up the snow drifts, adding the little decorations; it became an annual tradition for me to ice the cake, a good reason to pay them pre-Christmas visits in later years.

The author with the Russells at Ben's Folly, 1977
The author with the Russells at Ben's Folly, 1977

The house creaked all the time, and one could hear everything everywhere, but the atmosphere was radiant and restful. John liked to just 'be' in his study, enveloped in an aura of tobacco and old paper, musing over things, maybe scotch in hand, almost certainly cigarette. If I went in, a score would come off the bookshelf, and an anecdote woven around it. Like when the piano score of a certain concerto work was processed over creaking wood through to the western-facing lounge, and twangy Bechstein grand, and opened at the slow movement. 'Play it' said John with a silent grunt, expectation in his eyes, and as I played, tears, as always, hiding just beyond flow.

Tears not so far away for me either; like discovering new treasure it was as if a cellist were with us in the room, that F-sharp rising to A, and falling chords anchored by the D major scale. Finzi's great late work was hardly known in the mid-seventies, like so many fine works by him and other neglected composers. 'We listened to the première on the radio in 1956, while Gerald was in hospital' said John. 'The next day Gerald was dead'.

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Copyright © 14 September 2003 Adrian Williams, Herefordshire UK

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