E Housman was a Bromsgrove man : his Shropshire
was a romantic act of imagination. Yet
his expressed such a vivid sense of time
and place that art has transposed itself
on reality. Housman created a sense of
Englishness through his poetry that has
appealed to more composers than any other
modern poet. In what roots lay his appeal?
Gabriel Woolf, in a lively talk, described
Housman's life and values through a series
of readings of his poetry. Housman was
obsessed with death and loss, as many
Victorians were. But unlike Tennyson or
Keats, he used domestic subjects relating
to country life and landscape. To Edwardians
unsettled by the speed of progress, this
nostalgic vision of a stable, unchanging
past must have been almost hypnotic. Housman
was a self made man who rose to become
a pillar of society, yet his homosexuality
– and his brave honesty about it – meant
that he identified with those outside
society, soldiers, farmers, prisoners.
Essentially he was a loner, superficially
conforming but alienated. Landscape seems
to take on an interactive role in dialogue
with the isolated poet.
Ireland, despite his surface heartiness,
responded to the sense of transience and
fatalism. His setting of The Encounter
in which two meet and part, sharing only
a glance, is brooding, with a slightly
discordant undertow. There is no mistaking
its masculinity. The piano part repeats
elaborately at the end, as if expressing
something unsayable. Roderick Williams
deeply hued baritone reverberates richness
from simple lines, like "no more"
at the end of We'll to the woods no
more. It is commanding against a background
of rolling "storm and rain"
effects in the piano part of Burrows'
The Half Moon.
sang two versions of Far in a western
playland, one by Burrows and by Bax.
In the Burrows version, he demonstrates
something akin to circular breathing in
the complex rolling lines "he
hears: no more remembered, in fields where
I was known". The Bax version
is slower and more meandering, the last
verse depicted as drops of water by Burnside's
piano also speaks, like a trumpet, to
introduce Revielle, in a recent
setting by Martin Bussey. Willliams cheers
the lad to wake : the piano adds a note
of protest, for it may be to war the lad
is called. Forebodings of war and slaughter
haunt Ireland's In Boyhood too.
The Moeran cycle, Ludlow, is underpinned
by a vaguely pentatonic accompaniment,
which adds an eerie tone to the song of
the blackbird the farmer thinks he's killed.
Moeran's Lads in their hundreds
is curiously cheerful and lilting although
the poet knows the lads are marked for
sings Butterworth's languorous On the
idle hill of summer with an assured
feel for its changes of tempo. The distant
drumbeats of death gradually overwhelm
the summer stillness. It's unsettling,
as it should be. Williams returns with
Somervell's White in the moon,
alternating with Gilchrist's tenor in
C W Orr's This time of year. These
two voices blend beautifully, and the
singers work together as a pair, like
chamber musicians. Indeed, they sing duet
in Butterworth's Is my team ploughing?,
Gilchrist as the ghost and Williams the
farmer. The treatment is well judged –
the ghost does not have to strain too
plaintively and the farmer sounds hearty
enough without exaggeration.
a talk after the concert Michael Kennedy,
the authority on British composers, described
Vaughan Williams' song output and showed
how it developed over time. He cited On
Wenlock Edge, for it was the first
cycle the composer wrote after returning
"with a bit of French polish"
after working with Ravel. In recital we
heard the transcription for voice and
string quartet. Gilchrist was excellent.
He may not have the poise of John Mark
Ainsley, nor the surreal originality of
Bostridge, but it was good.
last systematic push on recording English
song was some ten years ago when Hyperion
and Collins were focusing on the genre.
Much has changed since then. Gilchrist
and Williams demonstrate a newer, more
distinctive style of singing. Their voices
are technically excellent, their interpretations
well thought through. They are highly
expressive singers who communicate well,
with clear diction and strong, direct
expression. They have so much to offer
that it is a pity that they cannot be
more extensively recorded. They could
bring a whole new profile to English song.