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S & H Festival Review

"Shropshire Lads". Ireland, Burrows, Bax, Bussey, Moeran, Butterworth, Somerville, Orr, Vaughan Williams. James Gilchrist (tenor), Roderick Williams (baritone), Tippett String Quartet, Iain Burnside (piano) The Assembly Rooms, Ludlow, 5th June, 2004 (AO)

A 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.

John 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.


Gilchrist 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 evocative playing.

The 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 death.

Gilchrist 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Anne Ozorio

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