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RODERIC DUNNETT looks back to a glorious weekend celebrating Gerald Finzi and English Song in Ludlow with the Finzi Friends, and hopes for another next year


Finzi has good friends: few finer than Iain Burnside, the urbane host-accompanist of BBC Radio 3's Tuesday afternoon programme Voices, and Jim Page, the lynchpin of the Housman Society, who is also Vice Chairman of The Finzi Friends: a real and living body, which supports and promotes the work of not just its own composer -- whose gift for turning fragile song surely partly stems from tragedy in boyhood (Gerald Finzi lost three brothers in six years between 1912 and 1918); but of English Song as a whole.

It is English Song, in all its various manifestations -- the celebratory, the tragic, the nostalgic, the comic -- that was celebrated at both the last two full weekends hosted by the Finzi Friends at the Ludlow Assembly rooms, just opposite the church where the most widely set of all English poets, A E Housman, lies buried.

A view of Ludlow. Photo © Keith Bramich
A view of Ludlow. Photo © Keith Bramich

This was where we gathered last summer, a long time ago now, but the memories are still amazingly fresh. Constructing a programme of Song is, as Burnside points out, 'like planting a garden: texture, colour, contrast, echoes.' One might add roots, tendrils, branches: for here is a progression that leads straight from Purcell and Arne (neither featured) through Parry and Elgar to one of the finest lyricists composing today -- albeit in a different, Berg-informed vein, much as Elgar was Wagner-informed: Hugh Wood, whose Gloire de Dijon (a kind of rose) proved one of the main delights of tenor James Gilchrist's worthwhile contribution to this song-packed weekend.

A roster of composers included reveals the big picture: first, Finzi of course: a substantial swathe of Hardy settings spanning 1922-36, some with string accompaniment (the Tippett String Quartet); I Said to Love -- six Hardy songs posthumously conjoined as a cycle, finely sung by Howard Wong; and Finzi's great 1949 Hardy set Before and After Summer, which includes the famous 'Channel Firing', sung with remarkable feeling by Brett Polegato, another baritone with a special and instinctive (and in Ludlow, proven) feel for English song, and a wonderful feel for dynamic control and shading.

Here too were cycles by Ivor Gurney (Ludlow and Teme, with piano quintet), E J Moeran (the more rarely heard Housman foursome Ludlow Town: Moeran includes two that are set by Gurney, plus the gloriously parodiable 'farewell to Barn' ('... and dinner will be cold.'); Vaughan Williams (Wenlock Edge); Walton (Three Sitwell Songs -- vocal adaptations of three movements from Façade); Tippett's Boyhood's End -- vividly delivered by Gilchrist -- and Britten (On this Island -- 1937 settings of W H Auden, a cycle that lent a title to 'Songs from this Island', a recital in Ludlow Church by Dame Felicity Lott.

And the pièce de résistance: two new, or emerging, cycles: Ian Venables' Songs of Eternity and Sorrow (a Finzi Friends commission: four highly effective and emotive settings of Housman songs, questionings of religion or sexuality rarely -- or never -- set by other composers); and Julian Philips' wonderfully irreverent yet pathos-tinged An American Songbook, embarked upon while on a Fulbright Scholarship in the US (and following on from Philips' Emily Dickinson cycle), which gets better, meatier and wittier with each new accretion.

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Copyright © 24 July 2005 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK


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