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The undoubted highlight of Kennedy's recital -- and of this year's imaginative Tardebigge series -- was the first performance with voice and piano of Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, four settings of A E Housman by the Worcester-based composer Ian Venables, originally heard at the Finzi Friends' Festival of English Song in Ludlow in summer 2004, in a version with string quartet, and here arranged -- with notable success, for the songs lost none of their impassioned appeal or eloquent pleading -- by the pianist Graham Lloyd, who gave a stimulating introductory talk entitled 'The art of arranging'.

Ian Venables is a highly gifted composer writing in a glorious idiom, with a distinctive lyric voice, steeped in the English tradition, but invariably with something fresh to add, and something new and original to say. He has chosen here texts that for one reason or another -- religious, social, sexual -- have largely been avoided by setters of Housman's poems; thus they hail not from A Shropshire Lad, but from the later collections More Poems and Additional Poems.

Venables begins the four-part cycle with 'Easter Hymn' ('If in that Syrian garden, ages slain ...'). He opts for a dark, deliberately unforgiving setting, with the voice starting low and rather sinister arabesques imprinting the accompaniment like a warning. The song, one could say, is racked with grief and pain, yet at the close there is a glorious opening up in voice and accompaniment: affirmation mixed with disbelief, in a massive, visionary final crescendo.

'When Green buds hang in the elm' is lighter -- the most scherzoid song of the four: the mood of the poem is much like Housman's 'Loveliest of trees', and the rapture grows through the second verse till the voice's upward inclining confirms the mood of optimism, even elation.

By contrast, 'O who is that young sinner?' is treated to a dramatic ostinato in the piano, first seeming to settle, then altering key unexpectedly, and ominously refusing to settle. 'And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air? Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.' Here Kennedy's usually lyrical voice almost broke into a savage snarl. This is a no-compromise lyric, and an uncompromising setting likewise: 'A mentionable shade'; 'They've pulled the beggar's hat off'; 'they're haling him to justice'. The comments of vox populi dominate the song, as they do Housman's poem: the observers are actually not so much sneering as quite sympathetic, whereas the song emphasises the pessimism of the hapless accused's situation. By the end, you feel the singer is literally tugging the victim's hair out. Venables' song is arguably one of the most highly effective of Housman settings of any era. All the more so, perhaps, because the words 'he can curse the God that made him' near the close recall the last line of the first song, 'Bow hither out of heaven and see and save'. There is little mercy here, it seems.

The last setting was 'Because I like you better / Than suits a man to say, / It irked you ...' Both of the last two poems, of course, underlined Housman's own dilemma, and predilections. The mood is tender, and the music briefly assumes an almost Finzian luxuriance: a tiny moment of warmth in an impressive cycle in which an almost stifling lack of hope -- the very opposite of optimism -- is the predominant mood. Kennedy's vividly characterised singing of these dramatic and compelling songs was both moving and memorable, and supplied an impassioned climax to this uplifting Sunday afternoon of English song.

Copyright © 29 August 2005 Roderic Dunnett, Coventry UK









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