S&H Recital review

Centenary of the birth of Gerald Finzi: A Weekend of English Song Friday 1st June to Sunday 3rd June 2001 Ludlow Assembly Rooms, Ludlow Shropshire (IL)

Admirers of the songs of Gerald Finzi - and the songs of many other English composers - gathered in the lovely Welsh border town of Ludlow to attend 'A Weekend of English Song', early in June. The busy programme embraced the written and visual arts as well as music, and some events had been fully booked for many months. Appropriate to the author's birthday, there was an emphasis on settings of the poetry of Thomas Hardy (he was born on 2nd June 1840). The speakers included celebrated singers Thomas Allen and Stephen Varcoe; Finzi biographer, Stephen Banfield, Hardy expert Norman Page and sculptor, Madeline Goold. A new composition, The Shadow Side of Joy Finzi - A Mad Song for soprano and piano, by Judith Bingham, commissioned by the Finzi Friends, was premiered.

The weekend's events opened with an organised exploratory walk around Ludlow Town before we settled in the Assembly Rooms to hear the opening address by Stephen Banfield, entitled 'Finzi, English Song and the Elegy.' Professor Banfield talked about the essentially elegiac nature of English Song, so often mourning the passing of an 'idyllic' pastoral England swept away by the Industrial Revolution; and the loss of love, of loved ones, and the cruelty and decay of nature etc. Yet, within that natural decay, was the promise of renewal - Banfield emphasised the cyclical nature of English Song and its implicit hope. On a more practical level, he noted that the piano part very often ended with elements of the beginning of the song with added comment. He wondered if, essentially, the tradition of English Song had ended with Benjamin Britten, in a succeeding faster age of increasing materialism and Pop-based culture, but he did manage to end on a note of hope for the genre.

On Friday evening we were treated to a recital of song by Thomas Allen accompanied by Iain Burnside. Besides Geral Finzi's Shakespearean song cycle, Let Us Garlands Bring, we heard Benjamin Britten's Thomas Hardy song cycle, Winter Words; plus songs by Purcell, John Ireland including, 'If there were dreams to sell' and 'Sea Fever', by Peter Warlock including 'Sleep' and 'The Fox' and, as one encore, Roger Quilter's 'Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal'.

Sir Thomas Allen opened Saturday's sessions with a Gerald Finzi Song Masterclass. Three students from the Guidhall School of Music braved Thomas's penetrating but sympathetic and humorous scrutiny of their technique. The songs were from Finzi's Thomas Hardy cycle, Earth and Air and Rain. James McOran-Cambell sang 'Summer Schemes'; John Lofthouse sang, 'When I set out for Lyonesse' and Douglas Bowen sang 'The Phantom'. Sir Thomas was most anxious that the singers (and we, the listeners) should study the poems, be aware of their meanings, and even recite them aloud. He was also keen that they should realise the shape and line of their song, and sing expressively creating a sense of anticipation and excitement through due note of crescendos and decrescendos, and judicious use of dynamics, and emphasis. He also pleaded for good diction and articulation.

In the afternoon under the umbrella title of 'The Romantic Tradition' Irene Drummond (soprano), Adrian Thomson (tenor), and Brett Polegato (baritone) sang a selection of songs by: Roger Quiter ('Go Lovely Rose'); Delius (his setting of Shelley's 'Love's Philosophy'), Morfydd Owen, Dilys Elwyn-Edwards, Rebecca Clarke ('June Twilight'), Frank Bridge ('What shall I your true love tell?) Ivor Gurney ('In Flanders'), Benjamin Burrows ('Mistress Fell'), Judith Weir, Hugh Wood ('River Roses'), Benjamin Britten ('Tit for Tat') and Ralph Vaughan Williams ('Love's Last Gift'); as well as Finzi's 'To A Poet a Thousand Year's Hence' and the new Judith Bingham song. In conclusion we were invited on a nostalgic trip to railway stations long since axed on board Flanders and Swan's 'Slow Train'.

There were three talks on Saturday based on the written and visual arts yet linked to Finzi and Hardy. The first, by Professor Ian Rogerson, provided a fascinating insight into the many illustrators of Thomas Hardy's works and their use of wood engravings. This was followed by Professor Norman Page's lecture on the musicality of Hardy's writings and why they had proved so attractive to so many British composers. Sculptor Madeline Goold gave a most interesting and articulate talk about how Finzi's music had inspired much of the spirituality of her work depicting the graceful form and flight of sea birds. She illustrated her lecture with many sketches of her work in progress.

The evening's song programme had the title, 'A Hardy Journey' and the songs, by the same singers heard that afternoon, were interspersed with readings of Hardy poems (including: In the Vaulted Way, On the Departure Platform and Silences) by actor/director, Philip Franks. Six Finzi songs were sung including: 'The Sigh', 'He abjures Love' and 'Ditty (E.L.G.)'. Other songs included: John Ireland's 'Her Song' and The Tragedy of that Moment', Arnold Bax's 'On the Bridge', Bette Roe's 'At a Watering Place', Hugh Wood's 'An Ancient to Ancients' and Dominic Argento's 'Hardy's Funeral'. .

Sunday commenced with Stephen Varcoe's talk, 'Singing English Song'. He repudiated the over-worked expression that England had been a Land without Music since Tudor times and that there was music of note before Elgar. He traced the preoccupation with foreign music and foreign singers to the Teutonic domination of music and the importation of composers (Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn and Brahms) and Italian singers. He then compared the musicality of the writings of Germanic authors with our own especially Housman and Hardy and asserted that our poetic and song creativity could equal anything German or Austrian. Yet he observed ruefully that although the music colleges taught students to sing in Italian and German, Guildhall, for instance, does not have an English Song class. In an inspiring talk he asserted the quality of English song, saying that it was more naturally attuned to ordinary speech than German, Italian and French and was worth preserving and fighting for as an endangered species.

The morning's song recital, sung once more by Irene Drummond, Adrian Thompson and Brett Polegato had the title 'Different Landscapes' and turned from the pastoral and the romantic to more urban and social landscapes. The programme included: three Madeleine Dring settings of amusing poems by John Betjeman (including 'Business Girls and 'Upper Lambourne'), two by Elisabeth Lutyens, one of which was a setting of W.H. Auden's 'Refugee Blues', plus Walton's 'The Lord Mayor's Table', Parry's 'From a City Window', and Benjamin Britten's 'Calypso'. But this recital ended on a lighter note with one or two amusing songs including Victoria Wood's 'Northerners'. I have to report, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that it may have been something of a reflection on us, the audience, that Adrian Thomas's hilarious singing, in the vernacular, about modern road manners in 'White Van Man' by 'Kit and the Widow', drew the warmest applause of the weekend!

The afternoon commenced with a talk by members of the staff of Finzi's publishers, Boosey and Hawkes (including Susan Bamert wife of conductor Matthias Bamert) in which we learnt of the accelerating and spreading interest in Finzi's music across the globe. A second performance of the new Juliet Bingham work was then given, this time it proved a little more successful for the reining-in of Ms Drummond's strong coloratura. Bingham's song is excessively dirge-like and one wonders why such gloomy music with its mad wailing needs to be associated with the name of Finzi. Stephen Varcoe gave a most moving recital of Gerald Finzi's Earth and Air and Rain. It was a splendid conclusion to a memorable weekend. Special mention must be made of the exceptionally well produced programme that contained many absorbing articles and the words of most of the songs. The hard work and dedication of all the Finzi Friends and of the Artistic Director, Iain Burnside must be noted and the very able administrator, Jim Page who is already contemplating another Finzi weekend in about three years time - hopefully again in the lovely surroundings of Ludlow.

Ian Lace

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