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There were what Burnside dubbed 'soft hummocks of Quilter and Elgar'; three settings of Housman's Far in a Western Brookland: Gurney's (one of his best); Bax's, with almost Szymanowskian yearning chromatics; and Gurney contemporary Benjamin Burrows (1891-1966), again with sighing chromatic culmination: one of three mixed-quality Burrows songs Burnside included.

Then too, much John Ireland: the ostinatoed trump of The Encounter ('A single redcoat turns his head ...'), where -- depending on the age of the redcoat -- Housman's and Ireland's predilections perhaps quietly intertwined; the inevitable Sea Fever; the touchingly slow, pained Brooke setting Spring Sorrow, composed in 1918, three years after the poet's death in the Aegean; plus the dishevelled fun of Hardy's Great Things -- the last three all forming part of a superb, galvanising closing recital by Brett Polegato.

There was Frank Bridge's Go not happy day (1903) -- a Tennyson text wonderfully set elsewhere (within the song-cycle Maud) by Somervell, whose Housman setting White is the Moon featured alongside Lennox Berkeley's dramatic, fire-fringed treatment of Tennyson ('Tonight the winds ...'), C W Orr's This time of year and Martin Bussey's glorious, declamatory Reveille ('Wake! The silver dusk returning ...').

Roderick Williams. Photo © Keith Saunders
Roderick Williams. Photo © Keith Saunders

The baritone Roderick Williams and tenor James Gilchrist supplied the lion's share of this weekend, Williams excelling in the lovely long, riding line of W Denis Browne's Arabia (amazingly, as late as 1914 -- before the doomed Browne embarked on the war -- the first known setting of de la Mare); superbly astride of the restrained impressionism and assertive (even prescient?) final line of Butterworth's On the idle hill of summer ('Woman bore me, I will rise' -- compare Gurney's 'It is most grand to die' from By a Bierside); touching in RVW's L'amour de moy; bringing rich resonance to the floating vocal line of If in the great bazaars by Amy Woodforde-Finden (1860-1919); perfection itself in placing Gurney's personal testament from the trenches, Severn Meadows; and profoundly moving in alternating duet with Gilchrist in the Butterworth/Housman eclogue Is my team ploughing?

Ludlow Castle, with the town beyond. Photo © Keith Bramich
Ludlow Castle, with the town beyond. Photo © Keith Bramich

Despite his slight initial tendency to overproject for the Assembly Rooms' intimate acoustic, Gilchrist delivered some treasures: shining in the exquisite impressionistic transitions and unexpected cadences of Malcolm Williamson's exquisite R L Stevenson setting The Flowers (from the sequence/cycle based on A Child's Garden of Verses); bringing out the extraordinary psychodrama of RVW's Bredon Hill ('... and went to church alone.'); and bringing his unique, committed, almost aggressive musical personality and zest to enhance Tippett's Midsummer Marriage -- anticipating sprung rhythms, and the final Pearsian ascent into 'the immense shining void', in Boyhood's End.

Tippett's 'cantata', a setting of W H Hudson's 1918 memories of a fifteenth birthday spent in South America, formed a key part of Saturday's Songs from the Exotic (the title stems from Judith Weir's collection, the pick of that bunch being the final Gaelic 'song of a girl ravished away y the fairies in South Uist'); just as the Williamson heralded a Sunday programme devoted to gardens, trees, saplings and 'green' issues that embraced even Maxwell Davies and Kit and the Widow.

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Copyright © 24 July 2005 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK


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